State Bar of California California Bar Journal
Home Page Official Publication of the State Bar of California November2008
Top Headlines
Letters to the Editor
MCLE Self-Study
You Need to Know
Trials Digest
Contact CBJ

In defense of the right to vote

By Holly Fujie
President, State Bar of California

Holly Fujie

Whether you are a Democrat, a Republican, a member of another political party or an independent, you are undoubtedly focused this month on the 2008 Presidential elections. It therefore seemed appropriate for me to use this month’s column to reflect on the role that lawyers and the law have played and continue to play in securing and preserving our precious right to vote. 

From my own perspective, whenever I vote, I think about how 100 years ago I would not have been allowed to vote in this country. Although the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provided that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by Any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” had been ratified into law in 1870, in 1908 it was still considered a revolutionary idea that women should be allowed to cast a ballot in federal elections. 

Over a period of 50 years, from 1919 to 1969, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association testified before Congress every year, urging it to pass a women’s suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Women suffragists worked for decades to convince legislators, then all men, that allowing women to vote would not destroy the family and the country, as many then believed. Many women endured hunger strikes in an attempt to pressure lawmakers into granting them the right of suffrage; some died after being forcibly fed while imprisoned for civil disobedience. 

All of these suffragists were fighting for a right that most Americans take for granted today — the right to vote that all “citizens” had been guaranteed years before. Like the founders of this country, they believed that “taxation without representation” was wrong, and that all American citizens should be allowed a say in how their country was governed. It was not until 1920 — less than 90 years ago — that the states finally ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, granting all citizens of the United States the right to vote, regardless of sex. 

So when I cast my ballot, I always keep in mind the sacrifices that these brave women made, and the “revolutionary ideas” that independent-thinking male legislators accepted in a time when women had no vote and no political power. They made a fundamental change in the law of this country that gave me and all women the right to vote.

That change in the Constitution in 1920 did not, however, make it possible for my own grandmothers to vote. My grandparents, who emigrated from Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were prohibited by law from becoming naturalized United States citizens and thus from voting, solely because they were born in East Asia. It was not until the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act was passed less than 60 years ago that all then-existing laws and measures that had prevented Asian immigrants like my grandparents from becoming naturalized American citizens were repealed. For these reasons, my own right to vote is doubly precious to me.

Obstacles to the right to cast a ballot in this country have not, of course, been limited throughout American history to those preventing women and Asians from voting. In fact, when this country was founded, in many states only white, male, Protestant property owners had the right to vote.  Two hundred years ago, more than half of the white male population was not allowed to vote, and it was not until 1810 that the last prohibition on voting based on religion was eliminated. In 1850, property ownership requirements for voting were abolished nationwide, so that almost all adult white males could vote by the middle of the Nineteenth Century.

Since that time, those who sought to restrict the right of others, particularly minorities, to vote, have used such tools as the poll tax and literacy tests to prevent others from exercising their right to cast a ballot. I was interested to learn that when Mississippi and other states adopted literacy tests and poll taxes to prevent African Americans from voting, they found that the laws had the inadvertent effect of preventing many poor whites from voting. To resolve this dilemma, states added “grandfather clauses” to allow those who were allowed to vote before the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution in 1870 (i.e. whites), and their descendants, to vote regardless of literacy or poll tax qualifications. The United States Supreme Court struck down grandfather clauses in Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347 (1915); however, it took the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, upheld by the Supreme Court in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 US 301 (1966), to ensure that the right to vote was not limited to those who could afford to pay a poll tax. And only less than 40 years ago did the Supreme Court’s decision in Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 US 112 (1970) finally affirm the Voting Rights Act’s ban on literacy tests, citing the “long history of the discriminatory use of literacy tests to disenfranchise voters on account of their race.” 

Preserving and protecting our right to vote is critical to all Americans. In recent elections we have seen how even one citizen’s right to vote, and to have that vote counted, can make a huge difference in the outcome of elections and in the government of this country. As we go to press, hundreds of California lawyers are preparing to work telephone banks and respond to inquiries and problems voiced by voters across the country about access to polling places and other crucial voting rights. Our state’s lawyers are traveling out of California to act as observers at polls, and to go to court if necessary, to protect that very precious but easily-restricted right to vote. 

So the next time you think about not voting because there is no parking at your polling place, or because you think your vote will be canceled by your spouse’s anyway, or because the presidential vote in California is “already decided,” remember the sacrifices that so many have made to give you that right to cast a ballot. None of us can take the right to vote lightly. Knowing the role that lawyers are taking in this fundamental process of ensuring the right of every citizen to vote in elections in this country makes me very proud to be a lawyer.

Just to know that members of our profession care enough to spend their limited free time and to use their own money and resources in order to ensure that the right of all citizens to vote in a free and fair election is not abridged for any improper reason, should be enough to make anyone proud — not only of our profession, but of our country.

Contact Us Site Map Notices Privacy Policy
© 2024 The State Bar of California