U.S. women mark their 87th year of suffrage under the 19th Amendment on Aug. 26. But millions of women remain stubbornly disenfranchised by factors such as under-representation, social instability and culture gaps.
(WOMENSENEWS)–In "Election Day," a documentary about the experiences of voters in the 2004 election, an Ohio woman is shown having trouble casting her ballot. She had moved, and despite re-registering, went to three different poll locations because her name didn’t appear on the books.
"The woman in Shaker Heights is carrying her small child in the morning and she had been getting the runaround and go-around, going from one polling place to the next," said Maggie Bowman, producer of "Election Day," released in March. "A lot of the challenges faced by working people in general are more extreme for working women."
On Aug. 26 U.S. women mark the 87th anniversary of the 19th Amendment giving them the right to vote. By some measures there is plenty to celebrate.
Women have turned out to vote at a higher rate than men since the 1980s.
In the 2006 midterm election 2 million more young women voted than in the previous comparable cycle, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, which credits the rise in part to the Feminist Majority Foundation’s "Get Out Her Vote" effort aimed at college women.
Moreover,55 percent of female voters cast their ballots for Democrats in House races, while only 50 percent of male voters did. In fact, female voters were responsible for key Democratic victories in the House and the Senate.
However, those figures do not reflect the fact that many women’s votes are missing from the count.
In the last presidential election, 8 million women registered but did not vote; another 36 million potential female voters were not registered at all, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Faith Winter, national field director of the New York-based White House Project, a nonpartisan group working to elect a female president, says the paucity of elected women is discouraging.
"When they don’t see themselves or people that look like them in the process, it’s a big barrier for participation. Not seeing yourself in power is something that’s particular to women."
Unmarried Women Fastest Growing Group
Unmarried women are the fastest growing major demographic group and represent the largest potential group of new voters, according to "The State of Unmarried America," an annual report released on June 29 by Washington-based Women’s Voices Women Vote.
But many of their votes aren’t there to be counted. Of the 49.5 million single, separated, divorced or widowed women in the United States, 18 million are unregistered and 5 million are registered but don’t vote.
"What would make them most likely to participate is if they have more information from sources that they trust: nonbiased, nonpartisan information," said Joe Goode, executive director of Women’s Voices Women Vote. "They don’t have the same social network or are not as politically engaged as married couples. The second major thing holding them back is cynicism towards politicians and politics."
Goode says the women sitting out elections are hindered in general by a high degree of instability; 40 percent of young women move every three to four years and need to re-register.
Other women may be hindered more by everyday difficulties.
"Women are voting and women are voting in high numbers every year," said Kassidy Johnson, a campus organizer for the Feminist Majority Foundation in Arlington, Va., which has a variety of programs to increase female voting. "I really believe the things that hold us back are normal, everyday things. You forget, you can’t find a babysitter or you don’t want to stand in line all day."
Johnson points to recently married women who may not know they have to re-register if they change their names. "A woman’s name does not change automatically and it costs money to change your name. You have to change your Social Security card, your voter registration card, then the roster or your license may be wrong and your name doesn’t match up."
Frances Talbott-White, vice president of voter services for the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles, notes that among older people there are more frail women living in assisted living facilities or in hospitals.
"An abuse that can happen is that somebody can go to their nursing home and say, ‘Let me help you with your absentee ballot,’ and fill it in the way they think it ought to be filled in," Talbott-White said.
The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum in Washington, D.C., has reported that Asian female voters face obstacles unique to their culture, as do many immigrant populations.
"For older women, a lot of it just comes from the cultural barrier, not really a stigma around voting," Priscilla Huang, the group’s policy and program director, said. "Voting isn’t really a part of what they did in their communities or their home countries, so it’s not an ingrained process. . . Women tend to rely on more English proficient family members to translate the news or tell them what is going on politically. I could imagine how this might sway or influence how they vote on things."
Asian American Women Turnout Rising
However, among those Asian American women who were registered, 84 percent voted in the 2004 election and voted at a rate higher than men for the first time, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.
"In the last 2006 election, two-thirds of all first-time voters were foreign born," said Huang. "Immigrant women take voting very seriously, and they are excited to do so. So it’s problematic when all the tools are not available to them."
Huang said political causes and campaigns often fail to target this group, which means they often don’t feel confident enough to vote and are further marginalized.
"A good example of this is around some of the pro-choice initiatives among mainstream pro-choice groups," Huang said. "When they go out and campaign, women of color and Asian Pacific Island women in particular get left out because they may think if you’re Asian, you’re not pro-choice. There are no Asian voters because there’s no outreach to Asian women."
A struggle still exists for married women, especially among immigrants, to vote independently of their husbands’ or relatives’ political views, Huang said.
Women living in domestic violence shelters or other temporary residences can be hindered from voting by fears of an abuser finding their address on public voter rolls, said Cheryl O’Donnell of the Washington-based National Network to End Domestic Violence. The organization’s VotePower initiative seeks to boost domestic violence survivors’ participation by educating them about safe and confidential ways to vote.
"Because of the emotional and psychological tearing down of a person, a lot of survivors don’t believe that their voice matters," said O’Donnell. "So the work we’re doing with voters is we’re actually encouraging them to be a part of the political process and learn more about their communities and have their voices heard."
Jacqueline Lee is a Los-Angeles-based reporter interning with Women’s eNews.
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