Asian Americans Advancing Justice - LA

Building upon the legacy of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center

Women's Equality for Whom?

Friday, August 25th 2017

#WomensEqualityDay celebrates the passage of the 19th Amendment, which expanded voting rights to women in 1920 -- at least, to white women. However, most people of color, including women of color, did not technically or effectively gain the right to vote until decades later.

Quick Timeline of Voting Rights

Contrary to popular belief, these individuals most likely would not have been able to vote.

At the founding of our country in 1776, only U.S.-born white male landowners were allowed to vote. This meant that in the first presidential election, only 6% of the American population could cast a ballot. Preserving white power and privilege (aka white supremacy) resulted in the political disenfranchisement of newer immigrants and communities of color for much of the first 150 years of our nation.

In 1790, the law changed allowing some immigrants to become citizens and vote for the first time. But this did not include all immigrants - only “free white” immigrants could become naturalized citizens.

African Americans (specifically, men) were given the right to vote in 1870 after the Civil War, through the 15th Amendment. Despite being allowed to vote, it would be difficult or almost impossible to exercise their rights due to voting taxes, literacy tests, and other racist hurdles, until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Asian Americans -- let alone Asian American women -- were not given the right to vote in 1920. At that time, Japanese Americans and “Asian Indians” were denied the ability to naturalize and thus, could not vote. It wasn’t until 1943 when Chinese Americans were the first group of Asian Americans allowed to vote as a result of the repeal of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (which placed restrictions on Chinese immigration and legally excluded Chinese people from citizenship and voting). Shortly thereafter, Indian and Filipino Americans were allowed to vote in 1945 and all other Asian Americans and immigrants were allowed to vote in 1952.

The rights of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans to be free and full citizens of this country is only 65 years old. Unfortunately, these rights are not guaranteed and are consistently under assault at the state and national level.

Voter ID Laws Hurt Minorities, Especially Women  

While the 19th Amendment allows citizens to vote regardless of sex, voter ID laws enacted by state and local governments disproportionately impact people of color, especially women.

Ninety percent of women change their names when they marry or divorce and may not have a state-issued photo ID matching their current legal names. As proof of marriage, government entities usually require an official copy of a marriage license in order to be issued a photo ID, which could cost anywhere between $75 to $175, again, disproportionately affecting women and women of low-income.  

Immigrant women also face a particular challenge when registering to vote. Only 66% of voting age women have access to documents proving their citizenship that match their current legal name. This is not surprising considering only 48% of voting age women have birth certificates matching their current legal names.

What More Needs to be Done: Limited-English Proficiency

We’d like to think we are far from discriminatory laws that keep people from voting, but voter ID laws alongside gender-mandering continue to suppress voters of color. While these policies may not appear on their face to target communities of color, the reality is that work to favor white political influence and diminish the political power of the most marginalized.

photo via Joe HallLimited-English proficient voters also face significant challenges in understanding and voting an informed ballot. The language in voting manuals and on the ballot may be more complex than many naturalized citizens can understand. Many states make it difficult to get language assistance at the polls or do not offer materials in needed languages, leading to lower voter turnout among limited-English proficient individuals.

California has an opportunity to move voting rights forward, particularly for immigrants. AB 918 would improve our current state law that already provides language assistance to voters by reducing existing barriers and offering stronger language assistance to voters. All American citizens, no matter their English proficiency, deserve to be heard through full participation of our electoral process.

On this #WomensEqualityDay, remember that the right to vote never came easily; our democracy was fought for by people of color, women, and immigrants. We must continue to fight to make sure all eligible voters have access to our democracy. We must also continue to stand up against the influence of white supremacy that strives to silence our voices and lessen our political influence.


For Legal Help

Advancing Justice - LA’s hotlines prioritize assistance to low-income persons in the following areas of law: family, immigration, consumer, public benefits, employment, housing, and civil rights.

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Our mission is to advocate for civil rights, provide legal services and education, and build coalitions to positively influence and impact Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders and to create a more equitable and harmonious society.