Anniversary of 19th Amendment a reminder of importance of voting rightsby Suzanne Pekow, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Today marks the 90th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.
For most of us voting is integral to being a citizen, whether we exercise that right or not. The importance of having the vote is perhaps most evident to those who don't have it.
Former Minnesota Secretary of State Joan Growe has traveled the world observing elections and encouraging people to vote. It worries her sometimes what she finds in her own country. "I was always surprised when I would remind high school students that originally in this country, only white men with property had the right to vote," Growe said. "And I think they just hadn't thought through [that] women had to fight to get the right to vote, people of color had to fight to get the right to vote."
Many people do take the right to vote for granted, but it might surprise you that calls went out just before primary day in Minneapolis telling people that they could not vote.
"I'm calling to remind you that you cannot vote for the 2010 state primary on August 10th."
That was the message Demetria Carter found on her voicemail the day before the recent Minnesota primary. She was devastated. "You know, it was like, I'm on this list. Again I'm one of the bad people," Carter said.
Carter is a convicted felon. She served 79 days in prison in 2008 for embezzlement and now she's on probation. She's lost her right to vote until she pays several thousand dollars in restitution to her former employer.
That's what prompted the phone message from Hennepin County.
"It's bad enough what's happening to me," Carter said. "But they have to call me up and remind me? And somebody gets paid to do that?"
Carter is one of about 60,000 people with criminal records in Minnesota who won't be able to vote this year. That's according to Sarah Walker, who directs 180 Degrees, a nonprofit group that helps ex-felons re-enter society.
"Laws around felony voting are determined on a state-by-state basis," Walker said. "In Minnesota, the current law allows for people who have completed their sentence to vote."
The longtime legal precedent is that through their actions, felons have forfeited their right to vote. Demetria Carter agrees she needs to pay her debt to society. "I believe that I made a mistake," she said. "And I know that I have to stand up and be responsible for it and be accountable for it, and that's what I want to do."
But, the loss of the vote is particularly painful to Carter.
She grew up in the Seward neighborhood in Minneapolis and it's long been a political hotspot in the city. She used to play with the children of state politicians. Her family was close with the Mondales and her parents were active in the Civil Rights movement.
The ability to cast a ballot has always been vital, said University of Minnesota historian Sara Evans.
"The right to vote is the most important right of a citizen, and all the other rights kind of hang on that," Evans said.
Evans said the women's suffrage movement was born out of the frustration and anger of 19th- and early 20th-century women who felt that they were virtually powerless.
"They learned how to lobby, behind the scenes, but it was very clear that they were second-class citizens until they had the right to vote," she said.
This is now a bittersweet reality for Demetria Carter. She works for Take Action Minnesota, a social advocacy organization. As part of her job, Carter canvasses by going door to door.
Before the recent primary election, she said she had to bite her tongue whenever she'd encounter an ambivalent or apathetic voter at the door.
"I just wanted to shake them," Carter said. "You never know how important something is to you until it's gone. And when it's gone, then you'll be surprised how hard you'll fight to get it back."
But for Demetria Carter, that fight may last for some time. She doesn't know how long it will take to make restitution to her former employer, but she's eager for the day that once again, she'll be a voter.
- All Things Considered, 08/18/2010, 4:45 p.m.