Woman suffrage by federal constitutional amendment, comp. by Carrie Chapman Catt : Stories, History

Chapter III. Election Laws and Referenda

To establish a “government of the people“ is to follow an ideal set by the growth of democratic principles, but, after such government has been established by a constitution, it remains to be determined how the will of the people is to be recorded and each state accordingly has enacted an election law to provide for registration and for taking the vote. These laws are so defective as to give unquestioned advantage to dishonesty and corruption in most elections upon referendum questions. In several states there is little doubt that suffrage amendments have been lost through fraud. All the suffragists in Michigan seem to agree that the amendment was counted out in the first campaign of 1912 and that ballot boxes were stuffed in the second, 1913. Willis E. Reed, Attorney General of Nebraska, has declared that he believes the amendment was counted out in that state. An investigation has revealed forty-seven varieties of fraud or violation of the election law in forty-four counties in the Iowa suffrage election of June 5, 1916. Given a group determined to prevent women from getting the vote, a group provided with money and knowing no scruple, and the inadequacy of the law in many States offers a positive guarantee at the outset of a campaign that a suffrage amendment will be lost.

If suffrage amendments are defeated by illegal practices, why not demand redness, asks the novice in suffrage campaigns. Ah, there's the rub. In twenty-four states, no provision has been made by the election law for any form of contest or recount on a referendum nor are precedents for a recount found. Political corrupters may, in these states, bribe voters, colonize voters and repeat them to their hearts' content and redness of any kind is practically impossible. If clear evidence of fraud could be produced a case might be brought to the courts and the guilty parties might be punished, but the election would stand. In New York, in 1915, the question was submitted to the voters as to whether a constitutional convention should be called. The convention was ordered by a majority of about 1,500. Later the District Attorney of New York City found proof that at least 800 fraudulent votes had been cast in that city. Leading lawyers discussed the question of effect upon the election and the general opinion among them was that, even though the entire majority, and more, should be found to be fraudulent, the election could not be set aside. The convention was held.

In the twenty-three states, [1]* contests on referenda seem possible under the law, but in practically every one, the contest means a resort to the courts and in only eight [2]† of these is reference made to a recount. The law is vague and incomplete in nearly all of these States. In some of these, including Michigan, where the suffrage amendment is declared to have been counted out, application for a recount must be made in each voting precinct. To have secured redress in Michigan, provided the fraud was widespread, as it is believed to have been, it would have been necessary to have secured definite evidence of fraud in a probable 1,000 precincts and to have instituted as many cases. This would have consumed many months and would have demanded thousands of dollars.

In some States the courts decide what the redress shall be, but where such provision exists, no assurance is given by the law that such redress will include a correction of the returns. In at least seven States, [3]* the applicants must pay all costs if they fail to prove their case a provision amounting to a penalty imposed upon those who try to enforce the law.

The penalties for bribery range from $5 to $2,000 and from thirty days' to ten years' imprisonment, but only one state (Ohio) provides in definite terms for punishment of bribery as a part of the penalty in an election contest. In most cases proof of bribery does not throw out the vote of briber of bribed, nor does an action to throw out purchased votes in contest cases bring with it automatically punishment of the purchased voter. This omission from the contest provisions presupposes that these bribery cases would be separate actions. Thirty-two states in clear terms disfranchise (or give the Legislature power to disfranchise) bribers and bribed, but few make provision for the method of actually enforcing the law, and upon inquiry the Secretary of State of many of these states reported that, so far as he knew, no man had ever been disfranchised for this offense. This was true of states which have been notorious for political corruption.

From Ohio alone has evidence been found of the actual enforcement of the disfranchisement provision. In this state nearly 1,800 bribed voters of Adams County were disfranchised in 1910 for scandalous and well-remembered corruption but in 1915 they were restored to citizenship. These cases reveal a disgraceful provision in the Ohio law, by which the briber is given immunity if he will turn State's evidence on the bribed; the vote-buyer may purchase votes by the thousands with perfect safety provided that when suspected he will deliver up a few of the bought by way of example.

With a vague, uncertain law to define their punishment in most states, and no law at all in twenty-four states, as a preliminary security, corrupt opponents of a woman suffrage amendment find many additional aids to their nefarious acts. A briber must make sure that the bribed carries out his part of the contract. Whenever it is easy to check up the results of the bribe, corruption may reign supreme with little risk of being found out. A study of some of the recent suffrage votes gives significant food for reflection. It shows how the form, color and arrangement of the ballot may help the corrupt politician to organize ignorant voters to do his will. In Georgia and Louisiana no party names are printed on the official ballot and emblems only are used. In almost half our states, though the party name is used also, the emblem is the real guide. New York does not even relegate this emblem to the top of the column. The emblem is placed before the name of each candidate, so that the illiterate voter can make no mistake in recognizing the sign of the machine which controls his vote. Scarcely more than a dozen states have the headless ballot [4]* which makes it impossible for politicians to make corrupt use of the illiterate voter.

In Wisconsin suffrage referendum the suffrage ballot was separate and pink. It was easy to teach the most illiterate how to vote “No“ and to check up returns with considerable accuracy. In New York there were three ballots. The official ballot had emblems which easily distinguished it. The other two were exactly alike in shape, size and color and each contained three propositions: those which came from the constitutional convention and the other those which came from the Legislature. The orders went forth to vote down the constitutional provisions and it was done by a majority of 482,000, or nearly 300,000 more than the majority against woman suffrage. On the ballot containing the suffrage amendment, which was No. I, there was proposition No. 3, which all the political parties wanted carried and to which no one objected. It could easily be found by all illiterates as it contained more lines of printing, yet so difficult was it to teach ignorant men to vote “Yes“ on that one proposition that, despite the fact that orders had gone forth to all the state that No. 3 was to be carried, it barely squeezed through.

In Pennsylvania there are no emblems to distinguish the tickets and on the large ballot the suffrage amendment was difficult to find by an untutored voter. In probable consequence Pennsylvania polled the largest proportional vote for the amendment of any eastern state. In Massachusetts the ballot was small and the suffrage amendment could be easily picked out by a bribed voter. In Iowa the suffrage ballot was separate and yellow while the main ballots were white.

In the North Dakota referendum the regular ballot was long and complicated and the suffrage ballot separate and small. It was easy to teach the dullest illiterate how to vote “No.“ It might be said that it would be equally easy to teach him to vote “Yes.“ True, but suffragists never bribe. Both the briber and the illiterate are allies of the opposition.

A referendum on a non-partisan issue has none of the protection accorded a party question. Election boards are bi-partisan and each party has its own machinery, not only of election officials but watchers and challengers, to see that the opposing party commits no fraud. The watchfulness of this party machinery, plus an increasingly vigilant public opinion, has corrected many of the election frauds which were once common and most elections are now probably free from all the baser forms of corruption. When a question on referendum is sincerely espoused by both the dominant parties it has the advantage of the watchfulness of both party machines and is doubly safeguarded from fraud. But when such a question has been espoused by no dominant party it is utterly at the mercy of the worst forms of corruption. The election officers have even been known to wink at irregularities plainly committed since it was no affair of theirs. Or, they may even go further and join in the entertaining game of running in as many votes against such an amendment as possible. This has not infrequently been the unhappy experience of suffrage amendments in corrupt quarters.

Honest election officers, respecting “the will of the majority“ as the sovereign of our nation, would protect honesty in elections, regardless of their own or their party's views, but unhappily that high standard is not universal.

Surely, the method of taking the vote and of safeguarding the honesty of elections should be the most important and fundamental of all questions in a republic. Such laws ought to be preliminary to all other laws. Yet as a matter of fact the laxity and ambiguity of many state election laws and the utter inadequacy of provisions for enforcement are almost unbelievable. The contemplation of the actual facts seriously reflects upon the intelligence and good faith of the successive lawmakers of our land.

With no one on the election board whose special business it is to see that honesty is upheld, a suffrage amendment must face further hazards through the fact that most states do not permit women, or even special men watchers, to stand guard over the vote and the count upon such questions.

When it is remembered that immigrants may be naturalized after a residence of five years; that when naturalized they automatically become voters by all our state constitutions; that in eight states [5]* immigrant voters are not even required to be citizens; that the right to vote is limited by an educational qualification in only seventeen states, and that nine of these are Southern, with special intent to disfranchise the Negro while allowing the illiterate White to vote; that evidence exists to prove that there is an unscrupulous body ready to engage the lowest elements of our population by fraudulent processes to oppose a suffrage amendment; that there is no authority on the election board whose business it is to see that an amendment gets a “square deal“; that the method of preparing the ballot is often a distinct advantage to a corrupt opposition; and that when fraud is committed there is practically no redress provided by election laws, it ought to be clear to all that state constitutional amendments when unsponsored by the dominant political parties which control the election machinery, must run the gauntlet of intolerably unjust and unfair conditions. When suffragists have been fortunate enough to overcome the obstacles imposed by the constitution of their states and a referendum to the male voters has been secured, they must immediately enter upon the task of surmounting the infinitely greater obstructions of the election law. They make their appeal to the public upon the opposition that a majority of independent voters is to decide their question. Instead, they may discover that in a determining number of precincts the taking of the actual vote is a game in which the cards are stacked against them. One woman who had watched at a precinct all day in a suffrage amendment election, said “Something went out of me that day which never came back-and that was pride in my country. At first I thought it was disappointment produced by the defeat of the woman suffrage amendment, but when I had recovered and could think calmly, I knew it was not that. I was still patient and still willing to go on working, struggling, sacrificing, for my right to vote; but I could not forget that I lived in a land which tolerated the things I saw that day.“ The women who know cannot rise to “The Star-Spangled Banner“ without a “lump in their throats,“ for they recognize the terrible fact that hidden under the beautiful pretense of democracy is a hideous menace to our national liberties, which no political party, no legislature, no congress, has dared to drag out into the daylight of public knowledge.

Bear these items in mind and remember that Congress enfranchised the Indians, assuming its authority upon the ground that they are wards of the nation; that the Negroes were enfranchised by Federal amendment; that the constitutions of all states not in the list of the original thirteen, automatically extended the vote to men; that in the original colonial territory, the chief struggle occurred over the elimination of the land-owning qualifications and that a total vote necessary to give the franchise to non-landowners did not exceed fifty to seventy-five thousand in any state.

Let it also not be forgotten that the vote is the free-will offering of our forty-eight states to any man who chooses to make this land his home. Let it not be overlooked that millions of immigrant voters have been added to our electorate within a generation, men mainly un-educated and all moulded by European traditions, and let no man lose sight of the fact that women of American birth, education and ideals must appeal to these men for their enfranchisement. No humiliation could be more complete, unless we add the amazing fact that political leaders in Congress and legislatures are willing to drive their wives and daughters to beg the consent of these men to their political liberty.

The makers of the Federal Constitution foresaw the necessity of referring important and intricate questions to a more intelligent body than the masses of the people and so provided for the amendment of the Constitution by referendum to the legislatures of the several states. Whys should women be denied the privilege thus established? The United States is one land and one people All the states have the same institutions, customs and ideals.

Woman suffrage has been caught in a snarl of state constitutional obstructions, inefficient election laws and the misapplied theory of States Rights. It is a combination which has so far retarded the normal progress of the movement in this democratic land that other countries have already outstripped it. Under these circumstances Congress should extricate the woman suffrage question from this tangle by way of honorable reparation for the injustices unintentionally put upon the only unenfranchised citizens left in our Republic, and women should insist upon their enfranchisement by amendment to the Federal Constitution as their self-respecting duty.


* Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, West Virginia, Minnesota, Utah.


* Oregon, Nevada, South Carolina, Florida, Colorado, California, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, Pennsylvania.