The 19th Amendment was ratified 100 years ago today, giving women the right to vote – but not all women.
“What that amendment did is it removed sex as a restriction,” Stephanie Cole said. “I don't think it's fair to say that it gave women the right to vote because it did not give so many women the right to vote.”
Cole's is an associate professor of history at UT-Arlington. She said even after the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, women of color specifically still faced obstacles to voting: poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses to name a few.
All of these practices were perfectly legal at the time, even though they were an effort to suppress voters of color. Cole said that’s still happening in the U.S. today.
"You convince people that might have the right to vote, that it's too dangerous of an enterprise or too taxing of an enterprise, or it's too difficult to do — so those people don't vote," Cole said.
In Tarrant County in recent years, two women of color were imprisoned for voter fraud, but neither of them knew they were voting illegally.
Crystal Mason was released from prison on parole shortly before the 2016 election. Believing she was eligible to vote after her release, Mason filed a provisional ballot. That ballot wasn't counted since those on parole aren’t eligible to vote in Texas.
Now, Mason’s serving a five year prison sentence for a vote that didn’t count. She tried to appeal her case, but in March a Texas appeals court upheld her sentence. A three-judge panel on Texas’ Second Court of Appeals said, “the fact that she did not know she was legally ineligible to vote was irrelevant to her prosecution.”
In a statement after the trial Mason said, “A punishment of five years in jail for doing what I thought was my civic duty, and just as I was getting my family’s life together, is not simply unfair, it’s a tragedy.”
Rosa Ortega has a similar story. As a citizen of Mexico, she came to the U.S. as a baby. Ortega has been a legal permanent resident since childhood and has four children who are all U.S. citizens.
She also believed she could cast a ballot, but green card holders are not eligible to vote. Ortega was sentenced to eight years in prison and will likely face deportation when her sentence is over.
“I thought I was doing something right for my country,” Ortega told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram from jail in 2017. “When they gave me the sentence, they just broke my heart, and they didn’t just break my heart, but I already knew my family was going to be broken, my kids especially.”
Ortega appealed her case in 2018, but a Texas 2nd Court of Appeals upheld her conviction. In a press release, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said even though there was evidence Ortega had been voting illegally for more than 10 years, the state of Texas offered her the minimum punishment available for the offense – two years community supervision, no prison and no special conditions. Instead, Ortega voluntarily chose a jury trial.
“This case underscores the importance that Texans place on the institution of voting, and the hallowed principle that every citizen’s vote must count,” Paxton said. “We will hold those accountable who falsely claim eligibility and purposely subvert the election process in Texas.”
Nationwide, voter fraud is extremely rare – far less than 1% of the votes cast since 2000 have been ineligible to be counted. But Cole said highly-publicized cases like these instill fear in voters, especially those who are already disenfranchised.
“It’s clear what the judges in those cases are doing,” she said. “They’re trying to squelch people who have a legitimate right to vote from exercising that legitimately, because they fear that they might somehow misunderstand their rights.”
Cole said she worries about how COVID-19 will impact voters of color in the upcoming presidential election in November, since mail-in voting isn’t widely available in Texas.
“The basis of who we are as a country is to promote voting as much as possible,” Cole said. “When we don't, I think we're letting down a basic American value.”
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