Presidential Nominees Ignore Women of Color at Their Peril

Many of the same women who had to wait for the right to vote may be a deciding factor in the November election

"The most reliable Democratic voters have been black women," says Kelly Dittmar of the Center for American Women and Politics. Credit: David Goldman/AP

Heading to the polls on Election Day has always been a must for Glynda C. Carr, who grew up in Connecticut with her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.

"For our family, not voting wasn't an option because two generations didn't have the right to vote," says Carr, who now works to help other black women harness their political and leadership power.

Women legally got the right to vote in 1920, after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the anniversary of which is being celebrated across the country on Women's Equality Day, August 26th. But in reality not all women could fully exercise that right until much later. And now, many of those same women who had to wait and keep fighting for the right to vote may be a deciding factor in the November election.

"Although 1920 is considered the formal beginning of women’s political participation, this is largely the case for white women and excludes women of color," says Nadia Brown, an associate professor of political science and African American studies at Purdue University. "Women of color were not given equal access to the ballot, and many had to wait nearly 55 years after white women were granted suffrage to fully participate in American politics."

Though black women were at the front lines of the struggle for women's suffrage, and the 19th Amendment technically enfranchised all women, thanks to Jim Crow laws and other barriers in place across the country, many black women weren't able to vote freely until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. (Notably, the Supreme Court all but gutted the VRA last year.) Other women of color faced voting restrictions too. For instance, explains Brown, some Asian women in the U.S. couldn't become citizens and vote until the McCarran Walter Act of 1952, and Latinas faced restrictive voting laws and practices in the Southwest.

A game changer for some women of color came in 1975, when an extension of the Voting Rights Act ended discrimination for language minority groups like Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans. "Extending voting protections to language minorities as well as requiring that registration materials be translated into other languages meant that many more women of color were able to register and vote," Brown says.

Though the fight for fair access to the polls was long and hard, and continues today – we still see voter-suppression efforts targeting minorities – women are now a voting bloc to be reckoned with. In every presidential election since 1980, women have voted at higher rates than men, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

"Women come out in higher numbers, and there are more of them," says Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the center. "When a group is the largest and more reliably comes to the polls, they are a key part of the election outcome."

Women of color may be especially crucial to candidates, since they are the fastest growing segment of the women's vote, and in recent elections some groups have turned out at the polls at higher rates and more reliably than other demographics. They also tend to vote Democrat when picking presidents, and were responsible for Barack Obama winning the female vote in the last two elections. Black women, for instance, voted at the highest rate of any group in both 2008 and 2012, and around 96 percent of them cast their ballots for Obama. The majority of white women, meanwhile, supported the Republican nominee.

"The most reliable Democratic voters have been black women," says Dittmar. "Black women are a key piece of the Democratic coalition that could help elect Clinton."

Another key voting group is Latinas. They don't vote as reliably Democrat and have lower turnout than black women, but Latinas still come to the polls at higher rates than the men in their community. And their numbers and influence are growing.

"Latinas' potential is fairly big," says Christina Bejarano, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas. "With many Latinas and Asian Americans we also need to think ... about their huge potential impact, especially when more of their population becomes citizens.

"With Donald Trump's campaign, it's pushed the momentum for more minorities to become citizens to vote," she says. "So the potential is growing."

Bejarano says there's also a significant increase in Latino populations in some battleground states, including in the South and Midwest. As their numbers keep increasing, they are becoming high enough to provide a margin of victory in those states.

"Women of color have a history of being active on the ground, of being the go-between for the government and the community," says Bejarano. "They get their families and communities involved and get them to the polls. It's wise if the parties pay attention to their impact and what women of color have going on: gender gap, high voter rates, mobilization opportunities and increasing numbers."

Efforts are underway to keep this momentum in minority voter engagement going now that Obama is about to be out of office and to make sure women of color continue to use, and build, their political power. For instance, the nonpartisan group Glynda Carr co-founded, Higher Heights, is focusing on getting black women out to the polls and increasing the number of black women in office at all levels. As Carr points out, there has only been a single black woman ever in the U.S. Senate, and she left office 17 years ago.

"What can we do to ensure that as the glass ceiling was broken with Clinton's nomination [we] also eliminate walls and open the doors for everyone?" asks Carr. "There's one glass ceiling, but barriers still exist."