On the heels of the centennial celebration of the 19th Amendment, Americans are deciding whether to elect Sen. Kamala Harris as the nation’s first woman vice president. Our powerful voting bloc of women stands on the shoulders of the courageous women who struggled to obtain this right to vote. Historically, we have honored suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton for marshaling women’s voting rights.
Rarely, however, do we mention Black women suffragists, such as Ida B. Wells and Sojourner Truth, who also sacrificed for this victory but were shunned by white suffragists. Because of racism and attempts to pacify Southern suffragists, Black women were not only discouraged from attending suffrage events but were also uninvited from others, including the famed Woman Suffrage Procession of 1913. Repeatedly, Black women had to ward off attempts to devalue, question and silence their right to vote.
The same is true today. Recently, Gov. Ronald DeSantis approved legislation to negate a 2018 constitutional amendment that restored the right to vote for many Floridians convicted of felonies. Instead of fulfilling the promise of Amendment 4, Florida’s political leaders passed a law forcing people to pay all court fines, fees and restitution before they could vote. Two Black women, Rosemary McCoy and Sheila Singleton, are among those claiming this pay-to-vote scheme is an unconstitutional poll tax and discriminates against people unable to pay. In their federal lawsuit, they also argue that, given their gender and race, the legislation denies them equal protection under the law while infringing their right to vote.
McCoy and Singleton contend that formerly incarcerated women of color, especially Black women, are the least likely to satisfy the new financial requirements because they have less access to stable income to pay these fines and fees. According to a 2018 Prison Policy Initiative study of employment rates for people who were incarcerated, 44 percent of Black women were unemployed compared to 27 percent overall. Further, only 67 percent of Black women had full-time jobs compared to 87 percent of white men, 77 percent of Black men and 76 percent of white women.
A federal district judge agreed that Desantis’ pay-to-vote system is effectively a poll tax and obstructed people from voting, thereby violating the Constitution. However, he was not persuaded by the gender-based arguments. McCoy and Singleton contested the judge’s decision on appeal, but, unexpectedly, they were ordered to explain why their claims should be heard at all. Yet again, Black women’s voting rights were restrained. Surprisingly, even DeSantis agreed that McCoy and Singleton had the right to be heard. Ultimately, the federal appellate court ruled that the women could present their arguments, but only after the non-gender-based claims had been determined.
As Floridians cast their votes in upcoming elections, amid 19th Amendment celebrations and federal review of the pay-to-vote scheme, Black women will continue to push to access the ballot box, even as others try to devalue, question and silence them.
Carla Laroche is a clinical professor at Florida State University College of Law, where she directs the Gender & Family Justice Clinic and the Collateral Consequences Project. She previously worked at the Southern Poverty Law Center on criminal justice reform in Florida and at Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP on public interest matters.