President's Letter

Law Day focuses on 19th Amendment centennial, voting rights

  • Print

Judy Perry Martinez

Photo of Judy Perry Martinez © Zack Smith

The right to vote is a foundation of our democracy that gives individuals a voice in charting the course of our nation.

The ability to exercise this right is a fundamental initial step on the path to equality for all.

President Lyndon B. Johnson said that the right to vote “is the basic right without which all others are meaningless. It gives people, people as individuals, control over their own destinies.”

Yet when the nation’s founders drafted the Constitution, they left voting rights up to individual state legislatures and did not provide the right to vote to more than half the population—including women, people of color and non-landowners.

Since then, many have worked hard to secure the right to vote. In 1870, the 15th Amendment guaranteed voting could not be denied due to “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Women, pointedly, were not included in this landmark for voting rights.

Fifty years later, the 19th Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing women the right to vote and marking the largest expansion of democracy in the history of the United States.

This year’s 19th Amendment centennial provides the perfect opportunity to promote the critical importance of the vote. It is also a fitting time to examine the removal of barriers to the full exercise of the right to vote. Polling places and ballots must be fully accessible to people with disabilities. Homeless people and others who do not have a street address should be able to register and vote. A voter should not have to travel hours to register or wait in line more than 30 minutes to cast a ballot. Felons who have served their sentences should have the right to vote.

And after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, we need legislation to reinstate the Voting Rights Act’s remedies against racially discriminatory voting laws.

To underscore the importance of voting and the significance that the 19th Amendment holds today, the 2020 Law Day theme is “Your Vote, Your Voice, Our Democracy: The 19th Amendment at 100.”

This year’s Law Day gives law students, lawyers, judges and educators—as well as state, local and affinity bar associations—the opportunity to educate the public about the 19th Amendment and the importance of promoting the exercise of the right to vote. Having it and exercising it are two different things, however.

In the 1920 election, it is estimated that 36% of eligible women voted. It was not until 1980 that women voted in equal percentages to men. Since then, women have participated at a higher rate than men. In 2016, about 63% of eligible women voted, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

Still, the numbers—particularly for young voters—are too low for such an important task. Possessing the right to vote is essential; exercising the right to vote so that you have a voice in our democracy is where one person can make a difference.

The ABA Commission on the 19th Amendment has developed a range of resources for all to celebrate and learn about the history of the amendment and its impact in our society. Among the features on its website, you will find digital toolkits to help support public and student programming; free streaming videos that can be used for commemoration events; and information on displaying the ABA Standing Committee on the Law Library of Congress’ traveling exhibit on the 19th Amendment.

To gauge citizens’ knowledge of their rights and responsibilities and to shine a light on the importance of civic engagement, the ABA conducts an annual Survey of Civic Literacy. This year, the survey results will be released as part of Law Day and include questions on the 19th Amendment.

As ABA members, we can do a great deal to encourage people to register and vote, no matter their party, beliefs or affiliations.

Join me in celebrating the 19th Amendment centennial and bringing greater awareness to the importance of each person’s vote.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.