The 2020 election marks 100 years since the passage of the 19th Amendment, which significantly expanded voting rights for women. While a century apart, the similarities between the 1920 and 2020 elections are striking — a deadly global pandemic (the 1918 flu), massive unemployment (following World War I), the brutal killing of Black men (the lynching of three circus workers in Duluth), civil unrest inspired by systemic racism (the race riots in Chicago and Tulsa).
This glimpse into our history provides some instructive lessons about democracy from our suffragists, who succeeded, despite the odds in 1920, to give perspective for whatever results we see from Tuesday’s election.
For those who are concerned about American democracy: Our democracy is strong and has been through a lot over the last 240-plus years. It may take longer this year to know our final election results, but we want complete and accurate totals and should take the time necessary to ensure that everyone’s vote is counted. Our right to vote as citizens — and our ability to access that right — has expanded slowly throughout history, but has expanded nonetheless. Our democracy is worth waiting for.
For those whose candidates won: Your work is not over. Elections are only the starting point for an inclusive democracy.
“Today is the commencement rather than the end of our work,” said Minnesota suffragist Clara Ueland following the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Women fought for the right to vote not for the privilege it granted them, but rather for the justice they could seek once they secured it, as active participants in our government.
And indeed, African American suffragist Nellie Griswold Francis wasted no time exercising her new enfranchisement, and wrote and successfully lobbied for a state anti-lynching bill that was signed into law in 1921. Get involved and stay active in our democracy.
For those whose candidates lost: Democracy is about the long game. It took 72 years for “Votes for Women” to pass the finish line, from taking its first breath at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. And it took even longer for all people of color to finally secure access to the ballot box after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Persistence remains the key ingredient to change in our country.
For those who didn’t vote: Democracy is not a spectator sport. You have to participate to see the change you wish for in the world. Our suffragists, our abolitionists — so many people have paved the way for us to access rights and live lives that they were not able to enjoy. It’s our responsibility to take the baton handed to us during our lifetimes and run as hard as we can with it, to further open up democracy for those coming behind us.
And for those who still couldn’t vote: We will continue to fight for you. Perhaps your ballot was not able to be counted, or the barriers to vote this year were too great. We will work even harder in our second century to ensure that you and others facing challenges to full participation in our democracy are able to find your seat at the table.
The League of Women Voters was founded by suffragists in 1920 to “complete the full enfranchisement of women and increase the effectiveness of women’s votes in furthering better government.” And that we have done for the last 100 years — building and defending our democracy by educating, registering and empowering voters, and by continuing to advocate for a government where every vote, and the voice it represents, counts.
We will continue this important work, and invite others to join us, as we work with our local Leagues and members across our great state of Minnesota to promote a democracy where every person has the desire, the right, the knowledge and the confidence to participate.
Michelle Swarmer Witte is executive director of the League of Women Voters of Minnesota.