Most of us now believe it is the right and duty of all citizens of the U.S. to register and vote. But this has not always been so.
As originally written, our Constitution gave most of the decision on who could vote to state legislators. In our early history, only white male property owners were allowed to vote. At different times and in different states, those requirements changed. In some states, freed slaves could vote; in New Jersey, before 1807, women who owned property could vote; by 1856, the requirement of a voter being a property owner had been eliminated.
As citizens of Colorado now, we have some of the most open, fair and inclusive voting practices in the country. A nonpartisan process for redistricting will be implemented after the census in 2021 and is being touted as a model for the rest of the country. Our mail ballot elections are safe, secure and simple. We have higher registration numbers and voting numbers than almost any other state, and the security of our elections has been called the best in the country.
We also have historical first-in-voting rights that are less well known. In the Colorado State Constitutional Convention of 1875-76, there was debate about giving women full suffrage. While that was defeated, women were given the vote in school elections and the process to gain full suffrage was simplified.
The first try for this suffrage was on the ballot in 1877 but didn’t pass. For the next several years, the Colorado suffrage movement worked toward another chance. They were aided by leaders in the national movement, and by organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, the Grange, the Farmers’ Alliance, the Knights of Labor and the Populist Party.
A second referendum on suffrage was held on Nov. 7, 1893. The majority of Colorado newspapers were supporters of the movement. A quote from the Mancos Times of Oct. 6, 1893, sounds like it was written this month: “Drop all other things from now until Nov. 7 to work for suffrage. ... Every vote counts” and will “hasten the day of full liberty for women.”
The Silverton Standard on Nov. 11, 1893, recorded this vote as a win by “a majority of several thousands.”
While this was not the first time a state had allowed women voters, it does have the distinction of being the first time a statewide vote of the then-all-male electorate supported women voting. Additionally, the next year, two women were elected to the Colorado General Assembly, another first in the U.S.
The national suffragist movement came to full strength after the first world war. There were several official suffrage organizations, and the push for women to vote was nationwide. In this atmosphere, a new group, organized by suffrage leaders in Seneca Falls, New York, was started. This was the League of Women Voters, with the mission to educate new voters to carry out their responsibilities as citizens.
Feb. 14 this year will be the 100th birthday of the League.
There now are more than 700 local branches, including the La Plata League, still educating voters and supporting policies of good governance in a nonpartisan manner. La Plata and other Leagues across the country are planning birthday celebrations in 2020.
The historical moment for women voting finally came to pass in 1920. After working for literally lifetimes, the Suffragists saw Congress, in June, 1919, pass a women’s suffrage amendment. The 36th state ratified this amendment by a single vote in the Tennessee legislature. On Aug. 26, 1920, the certification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women’s suffrage was official. The exact words of the amendment are short: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
Although more work remains to assure full voting rights to all, the suffragists scored a giant win for our democracy.
For 2020, the League of Women Voters in La Plata County and the Durango branch of the American Association of University Women are planning celebrations of this event, and the women and men who worked for so many years to make it happen. This will include parades (see us at Snowdown), speakers for your meetings, educational talks, children’s programs and more. For the birthday party, on Aug. 22, 2020, there will be a community celebration at Buckley Park open to all. Please make plans to be there to commemorate this significant moment in our history.
Trish Pegram is a member of the board of the League of Women Voters of La Plata County and its former president. She lives in Durango.