Excerpted From: Nathan Siegel, Women's Suffrage, Black Suffrage, and Lessons for Today: a Side-by-side Comparison of Both Suffrage Movements and the Lessons They Provide for Current Suffrage Movements, 71 UCLA Law Review 196 (January, 2024) (246 Footnotes) (Full Document)

NathanSiegelThe U. S. Supreme Court has stated that “[t]he right to vote freely for the candidate of one's choice is of the essence of a democratic society, and any restrictions on that right strike at the heart of representative government.” The U.S. populace similarly recognizes the importance of voting: a 2022 Pew Research Survey found that 69 percent of U.S. adults say that voting in elections is very important for being a good member of society-- considerably more than say the same about getting a COVID-19 vaccine, making choices that help reduce the effects of global climate change, following U.S. politics, and attending religious services regularly. It should come as a surprise, then, that--despite historic voter turnout in the 2020 U.S. general election which reached levels not seen in at least several decades was still only 62.8 percent of the voting age population, a level less than that of thirty other countries in a comparison of recent national elections. Additionally, many members of U.S. society are not eligible to vote. People under the age of eighteen cannot vote in national elections. An estimated 5.17 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. An estimated 13.9 million lawful permanent residents (including 9.1 million who are eligible to become citizens) are unable to vote.

What can explain the disparity between the importance that Americans put on voting and the percentage of those who are eligible to vote and actually do? Many of those who are legally allowed to vote face burdens in doing so, and others who are barred entirely are the subjects of movements still working to gain their right to vote. Two large segments of the U.S. population, Black people and women, have spent centuries fighting for their suffrage rights, a fight that continues today. The strategies, difficulties, and successes of these movements may provide some insight into how to close the gap between the current number of voters and full participation in America's democratic process.

The goal of this Comment is to take a deeper look at some of the similarities and differences between the Black and women's suffrage movements in the United States to uncover lessons that may be applicable today. It is not an in-depth discussion of the historical details of these movements. It is also not an analysis of the rich historical connections between the movements. Rather, it is meant to be a side-by-side comparison of a few of the most important and interesting ways in which these movements were developed and how each handled the immense amounts of adversity they encountered, as well as the degrees to which they were ultimately successful. Part I provides a brief historical context against which the rest of the analysis in this Comment can best be understood. Part II comprises the bulk of this Comment and compares the two movements regarding four major aspects: (1) how they framed their justification for suffrage; (2) how they approached working with each other; (3) why the U.S. Constitution--even after the addition of the Fourteenth Amendment--was not enough to guarantee them the right to vote; and (4) whether their respective suffrage amendments were sufficient in granting them the right to the ballot. Part III applies some of the lessons learned from Part II to three modern oppressed groups who are still actively seeking their suffrage in the United States: people convicted of felonies, non-citizen legal permanent residents, and people under the age of eighteen.

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While both the Black and women's suffrage movements have been limited to some extent in their successes, the voting rights of both groups of individuals have come a long way since the mid-nineteenth century. The differences and similarities between the strategies employed by both movements and the extent to which those strategies were successful in ensuring suffrage for Black Americans and American women offer lessons that can be applied to other groups seeking to obtain their right to vote. As can be seen by the case studies in the previous Part, different modern suffrage movements can draw different lessons from the Black and women's suffrage movements. For some, the strategies surrounding how to frame their justification for suffrage are instructive. For others, the advantages and limitations of constitutional amendments can inform decisions about whether to employ constitutional amendments, legislation, litigation, or other legal, legislative, and campaigning strategies intended to gain and maintain voting rights. In many cases, the analysis of how the Black and women's suffrage movements approached working with each other can offer important lessons regarding how modern suffrage movements might best cooperate with each other and navigate a political landscape that, as history shows, often pits disenfranchised groups against each other.

People convicted of felonies, non-citizen lawful permanent residents, and people under the age of eighteen were chosen as case studies in this Comment not only because they represent three large groups of currently disenfranchised individuals, but also because they each face various challenges that are experienced by groups seeking their voting rights in general. This Comment is thus meant to start a conversation about voting rights and how history can inform how to achieve them. The lessons discussed here are not limited to any particular groups, but rather are meant to be applied more broadly to suffrage movements. History and contemporary events have shown the importance of voting rights to our democracy and the lengths to which many people will go to suppress them. Hopefully, this Comment can start further conversations centered around using comparisons and analyses of the United States's rich history of suffrage movements to inform voting rights strategies going forward.

J.D. Candidate, UCLA School of Law; B.S., University of California, Los Angeles.