Today is Women’s Equality Day, established in 1971 to commemorate the ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 1920, giving women the right to vote. Although no one wants to repeal the provision, we still see politicians in certain states attempting to restrict voting in ways that may fall especially hard on women.
Since the 2010 election, new restrictions — ranging from onerous burdens on community voter registration drives to the elimination of same-day registration — are in place in 21 states. Two measures in particular may be especially harmful to women’s voting rights: strict photo ID laws and cutbacks to early voting.
Strict photo ID laws can be hard on women because of the difficulties voters may face when casting a ballot if the name on their ID does not match the name in the voter rolls. Even today, surveys estimate that roughly 80 percent of women change their name at marriage. Compounding the problem, about one-third of voting-age women do not have ready access to underlying documents with their current, legal name — such as birth certificates and passports — which can be necessary to get other identification like a driver’s license.
Cuts to early voting may also have a pernicious effect on women’s access to the ballot. Despite changes in gender roles, women still spend twice the amount of time on childcare and housework as men do. Demanding schedules at work and at home place severe restrictions on when women can go to the polls, and cutbacks to early voting minimize opportunities to vote.
Some early voting restrictions, such as those in Ohio, have eliminated the opportunity to vote on the Sunday before the election. This can halt “Souls to the Polls” drives, where churches organize transportation to the polls after Sunday service. In a climate where 44 percent of women attend church weekly, compared to 32 percent of men, the possible effect on women is worrisome. This concern is especially pronounced in the South, where 68 percent of women over the age of 45 attend service weekly.
There are two major cases where these kinds of restrictions are currently being challenged — in Texas and North Carolina. Texas adopted one of the nation’s strictest photo ID requirements, which accepts concealed handgun licenses but not public university IDs as valid identification. Famously, former State Sen. Wendy Davis (D) became entangled in Texas’s new ID regime in 2013 because her ID had her maiden name. The Fifth Circuit recently held the Texas law to be illegally discriminatory — the third time a federal court has reached this conclusion — but Texas defiantly vows to continue implementing and fighting for this law.
North Carolina implemented “the most sweeping anti-voter law in at least decades.” The legislation cuts the early voting period, ends pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, bars out-of-precinct voting, eliminates same-day registration, and enacts voter ID requirements.
Although legislators later softened the voter ID component of the law, reductions to the early voting period still remain. That hurts women, especially women of color — like Mrs. Rosa Nell Eaton, a lead plaintiff in ongoing litigation seeking to stop the law’s implementation — who rely on early voting more heavily than men do. Mrs. Eaton is concerned she and the elderly and disabled people whom she usually assists during the early voting period will be severely limited in the times during which they can go vote. She and other early voters anticipate longer lines at the polls as a result of the shortened voting period.
As we celebrate Women’s Equality Day and the 95th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we must remember that the right to vote, fought for by women as far back as the 1870s, remains contested. In his 2012 Equality Day proclamation, President Obama vowed to “keep [women’s] interests at the core of our policy decisions.” We should remember that restrictions on the ballot box tend to hit certain communities hardest — and women are at risk of being one of them.