Monday, February 27, 2012

The Right to Vote

90 years ago today, on February 27, 1922 the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Leser v. Garnett, upholding as valid the 19th Amendment which granted women the right to vote.

The impetus for the case began on October 12, when Cecilia Streett Waters and Mary D. Randolph became Maryland’s first registered female voters. Though in accord with the newly amended federal constitution, they were violating the state constitution which limited the franchise to men. Oscar Leser, among others, sued the state board of registry to have the women’s registrations invalidated. Upon petitioning to the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs challenged the 19th Amendment using three claims.

(1) Congress’s power to amend the Constitution did not allow it to expand the franchise so drastically as to entirely subvert state autonomy in election procedures.

(2) A state whose own constitution limits the vote to men cannot legally ratify a contrary amendment to the federal constitution (as Pennsylvania and West Virginia had done).

(3) Tennessee and West Virginia’s ratifying resolutions were inoperative due to procedural missteps.

In a succinct opinion on behalf of a unanimous court, Justice Louis Brandeis rejected all three contentions. With regard to the first, the Court recognized that the 19th Amendment’s language had clearly paralleled that of the 15th (guaranteeing the right vote would not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude) and thus was permissible. For the second claim, Brandeis noted that states were employing a “federal function” in ratifying federal constitutional amendments and that consistency with state law was not required. On the last claim, the Court stepped back from what it saw as a matter for state officials to decide, while noting that Connecticut and Vermont’s subsequent ratifications, in September 1920 and February 1921 respectively, would render the problem of Tennessee and West Virginia moot anyway. With these three declarations, the Court endorsed the legitimacy of the 19th Amendment and of women’s suffrage.

Since Leser v. Garnett, all remaining states have ratified the 19th Amendment, from Delaware in 1923 to Mississippi in 1984. Later in 1922, Georgia would send to Washington the nation’s first female U.S. Senator, a one-day Democratic appointee named Rebecca Felton. The first elected female Senator, Hattie Caraway of Arkansas, would not arrive for another decade. There are currently 89 women in Congress, and women now make up a larger share of the electorate (roughly 52-53%) than men.

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