Reflections on the Current State of Suffrage

Voting in U.S. elections has returned to the forefront of Americans' consciousness. In recognition of Susan B. Anthony’s birthday (February 15), who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement, and Presidents’ Day (February 20), members of the Barnard community reflect on the ever-important issue of voting rights.

Professor Jennie Kassanoff

Director of the American Studies Program and English Prof. Jennie Kassanoff focuses her research on post-Civil War American culture. In 2015, Prof. Kassanoff published the paper "Pregnant Chad: Gender, Race, and the Ballot" in American Literature, a Duke University Press journal. Here she connects President Trump’s allegations about fraudulent voting with historical accusations against people of color.

"I think that we need to see Donald Trump’s universally debunked claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election on a continuum with his earlier effort to challenge President Obama’s birth certificate. Both allegations are grounded in the assumption that some Americans are real, while others—almost always people of color—are fraudulent or somehow invalid. These ideas unfortunately have a long history in the United States.

"After the Fifteenth Amendment gave African American men the right to vote in 1870, white supremacists launched a fervid propaganda campaign that portrayed black voters as de-individualized and unidentifiable mobs. As one Southern sympathizer remarked in 1905, ‘Ninety-nine percent of the whites regard all negroes as being alike.’ As a result, African Americans were routinely accused not only of voting as a monolithic block but of voting repeatedly in the same election as well. In the South, where white conservatives were the actual perpetrators of voter fraud, such accusations helped make a case for the ‘secret ballot’ in the 1890s, an innovation that transformed voting from something openly democratic to an assertion of privacy, individualism, and white privilege.

"Faced with this history, Americans must actively defend their voting rights lest they fall victim to presidential fraud."

Professor Michael Miller

Political science Prof. Michael Miller focuses his research on American elections.  With the recent Presidential Election, Prof. Miller contributed to several news stories about how voters assess candidates (a Deseret News piece on reacting to scandals; an interview for the Washington Times on the role of super PACs). Here, he discusses voter suppression.

"I think we have a lot of cause to be alarmed about the direction voting rights is going in this country. We’ve seen a lot of laws passed at the state level that, in my opinion, are targeted at identity groups. In fact, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit said that the state of North Carolina had targeted African Americans in their voter ID law with 'almost surgical precision.' And complacency is the real enemy here. Regardless of whether we’re Democrats or Republicans, people of color or white, we need to agree that the right to vote is sacred, and we should judge all laws on voting rights accordingly.

"One thing we can do to reclaim power is try to overcome the temptation to allow partisan feelings to shape the way we approach this issue. People assume that the goals these laws purport to address are real. I’ve had more conversations than I can count with people in my community in which they begin with this opening premise that voter fraud is a mass problem. I explain that I have thought about elections for 15 years and am aware of no evidence that suggests that voter fraud exists at a scale large enough to shift the outcomes of the vast majority of elections.

"In my research now, I’m looking at the effects of this Texas law [that requires voters to have ID] and have identified by name more than 13,000 people who would have been kept from voting had that law been able to go forward. There’s this temptation to say, 'Well, I have to show my ID when I buy a beer, so why don’t I have to show my ID when I vote?' and that’s because buying a beer or driving a car are privileges, not rights. How free should voting be? As free as conceivably possible in the absence of evidence that there is a threat along the lines of voting fraud. It becomes very difficult to justify these policies on grounds other than attempts to keep certain people from voting. And I characterize that as suppression until someone shows me convincing evidence that they’re not.

"Do we take the right to vote for granted? I think that’s true of almost everyone. But we do know one of the most habitual blocs of voters we have is African American women. Political scientists think that’s because they were denied the vote as women, and then they were denied it in the South on the basis of their race. So there’s a generation of African American women who are going to vote no matter what. I think that white people, especially white folks of means, don’t think about voting rights at all [because they take their right for granted]. And I wish I had answers for how to raise consciousness on the issue in the mind of people who believe they don’t have to worry about their own voting rights, but I don’t. Not yet."

Professor Rajiv Sethi

Economics Prof. Rajiv Sethi research is focused on finance, inequality, crime, and communication. He is currently working on the upcoming book Stereotypes, Crime, and Justice and publishes regularly on his highly cited blog. He also recently wrote a guest column for India Today about identity-based voting coalitions and continues the conversation here, with an explanation for how political opinions have shifted since the suffragist movement.

"Casting a ballot is among the most cherished expressive acts in a democracy. The right to vote is part and parcel of the right to speak freely, and the suffragists and civil rights activists who fought for the universality of this right were fighting against the forced imposition of silence.

"Our national elections have featured landslides and nail-biters, but even in the closest of elections, nobody expects to cast a deciding vote. Why then do people take the time and trouble to vote at all? They do so because no matter how frail their own voice, they want to be part of the chorus. They want to express their solidarity with a chosen candidate and with this candidate’s other supporters. And when the alternative is especially feared or despised, they want to join their voice with others in opposition. For this reason, no candidate or party can openly court racists and nativists without driving the targets of their fear and loathing into the arms of an opponent.

"The recent election in the United States brought these cleavages into sharp relief. There is a battle underway that will define the meaning of America for a generation or more. As this battle rages, it is worth keeping in mind Martin Luther King’s claim that 'the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.' How long it takes and how far it travels depends on our collective choices, in and out of the voting booth."

Professor Christian Rojas

Chemistry Prof. Christian Rojas, whose research focuses on new methods for incorporating nitrogen into organic molecules, recently shared a historic voting document with students to encourage them to register to vote. Below, he explains “the difference a vote can make” and why the science community needs a political voice.

"When the time seems appropriate—during an election season or on the occasion of a presidential inauguration—I pass along to my chemistry students a reading from Eleanor Flexner’s Century of Struggle: The Women’s Rights Movement in the United States that my mother sent to me when my daughters, Sidney and Alice, were 12 and 10. The excerpt describes the every-last-vote drama surrounding the Anthony Amendment in the House of Representatives on January 10, 1918, just 99 years ago. This is not ancient history, and my mother has written in the margin, 'granma was eleven—just between Alice/Sidney.' 

"One point of the handout is to urge students to register and vote, and I include the link to the New York State Board of Elections. But I also hope that students will note that they are reading about this remarkable scene from the women’s rights movement during Chemistry, a class that at first students may expect to be dispassionate or simply a means to an end. I want them to know that chemists are also citizens of the larger world, trying, along with everyone else, to come to terms with what the Italian chemist and writer Primo Levi described as 'an indefinite cloud of future potentialities which enveloped my life to come in black volutes torn by fiery flashes, like those which had hidden Mount Sinai.'"

Student Perspective

Sara Heiny ’17
English major Sara Heiny '17, who is also president of the Barnard Student Government Association (SGA) and a member of the AABC Board of Directors, explains why younger voters must learn to navigate a world of information overload. 

This was the second time I was eligible to vote. As the President of the Student Body, I see my position as an opportunity to improve our campus based on the interests of a diverse community; but I also recognize, that a large part of my job (at least in my opinion) is being a role model for younger generations and for similar institutions across the country. As students, we are able to influence the future of our college simply through the power of voting, and I believe that same philosophy holds when we're talking about the future of a state or of a country. 

As a Hoosier (someone from Indiana), I knew that I was going to be voting in a red state, but we always have to hold on to the hope that someone, somewhere hears our voices, and then one day the tides may turn. 

I think the biggest challenge for our generation is the massive amounts of information that we consume and use to influence our voting habits. I was taught in high school that journalism was supposed to be an unbiased profession, but learned in studying history that its nearly impossible to avoid bias in any form of writing (this may seem a given to some, but once upon a time I did firmly believe in the possibility of unbiased reporting). That being said, I think the biggest thing we can do to turn that around is to know our sources, and if we don't know, then we ask, and we ask fearlessly.

How times have changed—or not
Take a look back at a lecture by American civil rights theorist Lani Guinier on Race, Gender and Votes, given at Barnard in March 2008 during the presidential primary season. Her argument is for a reconceptualization of power that would reorganize electoral politics.