On November 6, 2017 New Yorkers will celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the State’s women winning the right to vote. On November 7, New Yorkers will vote in municipal elections. If prior elections are any guide, the turnout will be low. In 2013, 24% of registered City voters turned out at the polls, down from the 93% of eligible voters who went to the polls in 1953. Many surmise that New Yorkers don’t vote because the cumbersome registration process disenfranchises people, just as sexism disenfranchised women, a century ago.
In 1917, when women in New York State won the right to vote, the goal was clear: full suffrage for women. In 2017, with embarrassingly low turnouts in State and local elections, the goal is also clear: eliminating laws that make it difficult to vote.
New York was not in the forefront of the suffrage fight. A long parade of western states granted women the right to vote, beginning with the territory of Wyoming in 1869. Ten states—Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington, California, Oregon, Kansas, Arizona, Nevada, Montana, all adopted women’s suffrage before New York State. Montana even elected Jeanette Rankin to Congress in 1916, before New York women could vote.
The campaign to win the franchise in New York required decades of organizing. Suffragists submitted a petition with nearly 600,000 signatures gathered via door-to-door canvassing to members of the 1894 Constitutional Convention, only to have it rejected. New York’s novel strategy of women marching in the streets for suffrage began in 1908 with 28 marchers and peaked at 35,000 marchers in 1915, the year four eastern states (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts) defeated suffrage.
New York City denied suffragists a permit to hold a procession (as it was termed) in 1908 yet 28 intrepid women paraded on Broadway, in defiance. Women's participation in street protests was a novel development and initially many women were afraid to march in public. But by 1915, those qualms had disappeared and the suffrage parade stretched out for five miles and marchers proclaimed that “a vote for suffrage is a vote for justice.”
The collection of Mayor John Pulroy Mitchel (1914-1917) contains several letters from organizers at the Woman Suffrage Party requesting support to hold rallies and parades.
Letter from Martha Wentworth Suffren, the chair of the Woman Suffrage Party, to Bertram de N. Cruger, Executive Secretary to Mayor Mitchel, 1914. Mayor Mitchel papers, NYC Municipal Archives.
Pro-Suffrage Letters to Mayor Mitchel, 1914. Mayor Mitchel papers, NYC Municipal Archives.
Despite rejection after rejection, organizers persisted. In 1917, after the legislature passed two successive resolutions to amend the State Constitution, a majority of New Yorkers finally voted to grant the State’s women the right to vote. While this may seem an inevitable outcome today, it was not assured. Suffrage prevailed by only 94,000 votes. On Election Day, November 6, the New York Times continued its campaign against women voters with an editorial citing the 1915 defeat.
“There was sound reason to beat it then, and even sounder reason to beat it now. It is an impertinence, a distraction and a division when the country should be united on the cardinal and sole purpose of winning the war.… The State has troubles enough without admitting a lot of new voters….”
Mayor Mitchel, by contrast, supported suffrage and on the eve of the 1917 vote, penned an editorial for the New York World.
Draft of pro-suffrage editorial by Mayor Mitchel, 1917. Mayor Mitchel papers, NYC Municipal Archives.
Anti-suffrage letters responding to Mayor Mitchel's editorial, 1917. Mayor Mitchel papers, NYC Municipal Archives.
New York was the first state east of the Mississippi River to enfranchise women and it was pivotal in the eventual passage and ratification of an amendment enfranchising women, nationally in 1920. The New York victory was viewed as the launching pad for the national effort. The State’s large Congressional delegation was poised to support a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. The battle passed from New York to Washington and in 1919 Congress passed the 19th Amendment which was ratified in August, 2020. The agitation and organizing required to grant half of the population a basic right is now required to ensure New Yorkers' voting rights today. Full ballot access today is the equivalent of achieving full suffrage in 1917. As in 1917, New York State is not in the forefront, but it could again play a pivotal role in boosting support for measures that remove burdens for people trying to exercise their basic right to vote. By expanding voting opportunities at this juncture, New York can provide an alternative vision to the national efforts to suppress voter participation.
What is required? The New York State Legislature and Governor must enact/sign five measures that make it easier to vote: automatic voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting, early voting, voting by mail and restoring voting rights for people with past criminal convictions.
- 37 States offer in-person, early voting including New Jersey. Three States, Colorado, Oregon and Washington allow every voter to return a ballot by mail or drop it off at a designated site. Nationally, 1/3 of all voters vote before Election Day.
- 27 states and the District of Columbia allow any citizen to vote by absentee ballot without submitting a “valid” reason.
- Fifteen states offer some version of same day voter registration that allows people to register and cast a vote on the same day, after showing valid proof of residency. During the 2016 election in Oregon, more than 70% of eligible voters chose this option.
- Eight states and the District of Columbia automatically register people transacting business at state agencies and give the opportunity to “opt out” of registration.
- Maine and Vermont allow felons to vote from prison. Virginia and Maryland recently restored the rights of people on parole to vote. New York’s 40,000 parolees should regain their rights.
Census data from 2010 shows that New York State ranks 34th among all states in voter registration by eligible citizens. Data also shows that the number of registered voters declined between 2008 and 2012. Passing these five measures to make voting friendly has the potential of boosting voter participation throughout the State. Everyone benefits with full participation of the electorate. Instead of restricting the franchise, New York should join the states leading the way to make it easier for ordinary Americans to vote.
Data from the National Conference of State Legislatures