Black Women And Girls As An Electorate

The political history of Black women speaks powerfully to our central place as torchbearers of American democratic practice, even in a fraught polity that has often fallen short of its professed ideals. While Black women were not constitutionally permitted to vote until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, our voting rights remained precarious until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Throughout this time and beyond, Black women have been resilient and steadfast in our engagement with U.S. politics, even as we have confronted profound exclusion. 

If voting rights are indicative of full citizenship, then Black women have had a voice for less than 60 years–and undocumented, disabled, and young Black women are still left wanting. American democracy is young, fragile, and still laden with divisive and restrictive policies that hinder the political power of Black women. To achieve the desired outcomes in Black Women Best (BWB), we must ensure Black women can exercise our political and economic power to influence the democratic and economic conditions that affect our lives. When the community chronically excluded from U.S. democracy and economy actually experiences full democratic and economic citizenship, everyone thrives. In early September, Congresswoman Kelly and Watson Coleman co-sponsored a resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution granting every U.S. citizen of legal voting age the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.

Black women are one of the most active constituencies in the U.S. electorate. In an attempt to increase voting accessibility and turnout, Caucus co-chairs Bonnie Watson Coleman and Yvette Clarke have co-sponsored the Time Off to Vote Act, which requires employers to provide their employees with at least 2 hours of paid time off to vote in federal elections. 

Over and above our exemplary voter turnout, Black women have also made gains in political representation in recent years: Between May 2016 and May 2020, Black elected officials increased at a rate of 17 percent, from 6.5 percent to 7.6 percent. Black women were the major driver of that progress, as their representation increased in all offices at a rate of 33 percent, from 2.3 percent to 3.1 percent. Still, there is substantial room for improvement in Black representation. As of May 2020, Black leaders held just 7.6 percent of elected offices at the federal, state, county, and city levels while making up 13 percent of the U.S. population. Furthermore, Black women’s increases in political representation have occurred in spite of the high cost of entry in electoral politics due to campaign costs that limit broad access to people with limited financial capital or assets. Though Black women are widely considered the “backbone” of U.S democracy, our political inclusion has necessitated overcoming voter suppression in the context of deep economic and social disadvantage. Even as Black women are publicly praised for saving democracy, we are acutely aware of the ways we are treated as second-class citizens. Results from a national survey of nearly 15,000 Black, Latino, Asian and white respondents convey Black women’s distinctive experiences and status in American life and politics. Namely, only 32 percent of Black women surveyed agreed that they “feel like a full and equal citizen in this country with all the rights and protections that other people have.” White men and women agreed to this statement at rates more than twice as high as Black women. Black women were the least likely among all respondents to feel like full and equal citizens.

All three Caucus co-chairs co-sponsored the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, to prevent further infringements on the right to vote. Congresswoman Watson Coleman also co-sponsored the Youth Voting Rights Act, which ensures that young people can vote as soon as they turn 18 by requiring states to establish pre-registration processes for 16 and 17-year-olds, allowing states to expand their processes to youth younger than 16, and ensuring the availability of polling places on higher ed campuses.

It is not surprising that Black women do not feel like full and equal citizens. When we do vote at high rates and influence elections—as they did in Georgia in 2020—we risk backlash and voter suppression. What’s more is that democratic citizenship goes beyond voting rights to include access to social rights such as housing, education, and health., Black women in the United States have constrained social rights that leave us disproportionately vulnerable to poverty, precarity, and harm. In this way, Black women’s political participation does not sufficiently translate into a substantive representation that maximizes our material thriving and well-being.

Congresswoman Watson Coleman introduced the Filer Voter Act which increases access to the voter registration process by allowing Americans to register to vote when they file their taxes. The Caucus co-chairs co-sponsored For the People Act, to preserve Americans’ access to the ballot, reduce the influence of money in politics, and strengthen ethics rules for public servants.  

Co-chairs Watson Coleman co-sponsored the Our Homes, Our Votes Act, which facilitates voter registration for residents of certain federally assisted housing for the purpose of federal elections. The caucus co-chairs also co-sponsored Expanding the VOTE Act, which allocates resources to provide translated election materials to voters in any language spoken by 5% of the population or 10,000 people within a jurisdiction. 

Often the most marginalized and yet still among the most politically active and economically resilient citizens, Black women have long played a leading role in expanding access to civil rights for all communities. Black women’s political voice and power are critical preconditions for moving toward justice for everyone in the US.