‘Crucial voices’: the US women leading the fight against voter suppression

With the U.S. democracy facing perhaps its gravest threat, from voter suppression to the decimation of the U.S. Postal Service – activists are working doubly hard this year to ensure free and fair elections.

But present day enfranchisement efforts have largely failed to acknowledge how the women’s suffrage movement, culminating in the ratification of the 19th Amendment exactly 100 years ago, has informed the work being done today. “Before suffragists, you didn’t see groups engaging in public civil disobedience,” said Colleen Shogan, senior vice president and director of the David M. Rubenstein Center at the White House Historical Association. “No one had picketed in front of the White House before Alice Paul and others did on January 10, 1917.”

The ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920, marked the end of a 70-year struggle for women’s suffrage – the longest-running social justice movement American has yet seen. It produced the single largest enfranchisement effort in American history, guaranteeing women the right to vote. But it was only a beginning. 

Related: Stories of efforts to expand voting rights in today’s America

Many, especially Black women, did not benefit from suffragists’ hard-fought victory. But they did not waver in fighting for equal rights. Fannie Lou Hamer, among the leaders of the 1964 Freedom Summer Campaign and co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, carried her force into the Civil Rights Movement, fighting for fair access to the ballot box for Black voters. Dorothy Height, who was a key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. 

These women – along with many, many more whose stories have yet to be unearthed – paved the way in line with a century-long history of women-led activism. And it is still women – veteran activists, CEOs of century-old feminist nonprofits, mothers, schoolteachers, U.S. Senators and state representatives – leading the charge. They seek to fulfill the promise of suffragists and civil rights leaders even as they confront new hurdles, with a constant cause in mind: Preserve our democracy. 

Here are some of their stories.

Patricia Brigham

FLORIDA: Brigham President of the League of Women Voters, Florida chapter. 

(Photo courtesy of Patricia Brigham)

Patricia Brigham considers herself a late bloomer. 

It wasn’t until her late 40s, following a longstanding career as a radio broadcaster, that she says her life really began: At 47, she went back to graduate school; at 51, she started running marathons; and at 53, she got engaged to her now-husband, who, at 6:30 in the morning on a group long-distance training run, got down on one knee and asked her to marry him.  

“Nothing in my life has been traditional,” Brigham said. “Now, as president of the League of Women Voters, I feel like I’m blooming.” 

In early 2013, Brigham joined the League of Women Voters of Florida, the century-old nonpartisan advocacy group borne on the heels of the women’s suffrage movement. At the League’s new member orientation – months after 24 students and two teachers died in Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting – the speaker asked for someone to spearhead the League’s gun-control advocacy. Brigham immediately volunteered. 

“I felt like 1,000 lightbulbs went off in my body at the same time,” Brigham recalled. “I knew immediately that’s what I was being called to do.” 

With a coalition of Florida-based partners, Brigham led the League’s efforts pushing for gun legislation, forming the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. Largely due to the group’s advocacy, the Florida Legislature passed its first gun control law in over two decades. But less than a year after the law passed, legislators repealed several of the safety provisions. 

Brigham was elected the League of Florida’s president in 2018, and took on the group’s core focus: fighting voter suppression. Over the past year, she has lobbied for the passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill that would restore the Voting Rights Act dismantled by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. 

“Our democracy and our sacred right to vote are under threat in America,” she wrote in an op-ed that ran in the Sun-Sentinel last month. “If our government truly wants to begin the healing process, there is no better place to start than with the passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Even in a tough state like Florida, her get-out-the-vote work is making an impact. In 2018, after fighting the state of Florida and the Florida Legislature for over two years, Brigham and her team won approval for early voting sites at several college campuses. Over 60,000 Floridian college students voted early in the 2018 midterm elections. “This was a huge feat,” she said. “Getting college students to the polls creates a lifelong habit of voting.”

The League also successfully pushed the Florida electorate to amend the state constitution to enfranchise Florida’s 1.4 million ex-felons. But a year later, the legislature passed a law requiring ex-felons to pay all fines and fees before registering to vote. And so the League and allied organizations took them to court. 

“You cannot make voting a pay to vote,” Brigham said. “It’s a modern day poll tax.” 

They were briefly successful, when the judge deemed the bill unconstitutional. But earlier last month, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay on the bill that will leave hundreds of thousands of ex-felons disenfranchised. Next week, they will be back in court.

In a GOP-controlled state like Florida, lobbying to get out the vote during a crucial election year is a particularly rigorous battle. But Brigham says she feels strangely prepared for this. 

“Everything I’ve done in my life prepared me to be the League of Women Voters president,” she said. 

Among all the rich experiences in her life, she credits marathon running for preparing her best for the tough job of getting out the vote in Florida. “When you are suffering out in the Florida heat, you develop grit and strength,” Brigham said, remembering when she ran the Marine Corps marathon – with a fractured toe – and still finished the race. 

“I was determined to finish if I had to crawl across the finish line,” she said. “I truly believe that strength is what gets me through the work I do every day for the League.”

Cara McClure

ALABAMA: McClure is a veteran Alabama-based community activist, former director of Black Voters Matter, alumna of the “Woke Vote” fellowship program and creator of the nonprofit “Faith and Works,” a civic engagement collective for faith leaders organizing their communities to vote.

(Photo courtesy of Cara McClure)

It was July 13, 2013. Birmingham-native Cara McClure was traveling to Memphis, Tennessee, to visit the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968. The television was on at the restaurant where she ate dinner. News from the trial of George Zimmerman, charged with the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, blasted through the room: Acquitted of all charges. Immediately, her cell phone rang. It was her 18-year-old son.  

“We both were just really quiet,” McClure recalled. “I had no idea how to comfort him. I was just as disturbed.”

To soothe her son, she told him they would go to a Black Lives Matter protest in Birmingham when she returned home. 

“I had never been to a protest before,” she said. “It changed my whole life.” Ever since marching through the streets on that balmy, July afternoon, McClure, 51, has dedicated her life to mobilizing Black voters in her home state of Alabama, the birthplace of the civil rights movement and current battleground for voting rights.

She soon founded the Black Lives Matter, Birmingham chapter, and became the Alabama state coordinator of Black Voters Matter. In late 2019, she launched her own nonprofit, Faith & Works, which aims to empower faith leaders to organize their communities to engage in elections. 

But up until November, McClure is hyperfocused on mobilizing voters with one paramount goal in mind: Keep Alabama Democratic Senator Doug Jones in office. 

McClure is passionate about engaging “unlikely and unengaged voters,” that is, those who live in poor, rural districts and often lack internet access – those who political campaigns often skip. Among many strategies to target this group, every Saturday since closures began, McClure and her team deliver more than 60,000 pounds of groceries to residents who live in Alabama’s public housing projects. While doing so, she talks to residents about their voter registration status.

But McClure says she is perhaps able to relate to these communities especially well. She herself faced financial struggles when her husband left her in 2011. She posted an ad on Craigslist, “asking any generous folks to please let a mother and son in.” For three years, they hopped around and slept on strangers’ floors, homeless. “I was a housewife before that,” she said. “I had no money. I know what it’s like to be in a tight spot, and so I don’t judge anyone. I just listen.”

Tammy Baldwin 

WISCONSIN: Senator Baldwin (D-WI) became the first female member of Congress in 1998, and the first openly gay challenger sent to Congress. 

(Photo courtesy of Tammy Baldwin)

Tammy Baldwin says she first understood the power of women in politics as a member of the City Council in Madison, Wisconsin. 

She and her colleagues debated that day in 1986 whether to fund a new nightly bus route for Madison Technical College on the outskirts of town. Students complained of a lack of safe transportation home from their night classes. In the first half of the meeting, only male members of the council spoke. They scoffed at the proposal, criticizing the Technical College for the request.

Finally, Baldwin remembers, a female council member stood up and told her story. She had attended night classes so that she could care for her children by day and recalled the many nights that she felt unsafe, walking home alone along dimly lit streets. Then, one by one, other women in the room stood up to recount their own stories.

“The whole debate changed from finger pointing to actually thinking about safety,” Baldwin said. “It was a lightbulb moment for me. Women make a difference when we are sitting at the table. Our life experiences offer unique perspectives.”

Once the women spoke, the bus route was approved.

Since she entered politics in 1986, Baldwin, Wisconsin’s first female member of Congress and the nation’s first openly gay challenger sent to Congress, has been making history, pushing healthcare reform (she crafted the provision to the Affordable Care Act that allows young people to stay on their parent’s insurance unil 26), and better representation in Congress among women and LGBTQ people. The latter, she said, currently constitutes a tenth of a percent of Congress, despite making up 4.5 percent of the population. 

In 2017, Baldwin had the idea to partner with female senators and affiliated partners to start the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission, a temporary federal panel with a goal to commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment and to educate Americans about women’s suffrage. “I remember when the nation turned 200 in 1976 how history lessons were drilled into me in my classes,” she said. “I wanted to bring that same sense of awareness to women’s very specific history.” 

These days, Baldwin is focused on fighting the troubling trend of voter suppression in Wisconsin, particularly to do with issues of redistricting. 

“We have one of the most gerrymandered district maps in the country,” she said, citing that this and other tactics are targeted toward voters of colors, young voters and senior voters. In 2018, 53% of Wisconsinites voted democrat on the ticket for state legislature, Baldwin said, but Democrats only occupy a third of the seats. “And Republicans know this,” she added.

From now until election day, Baldwin is in the midst of carrying out a number of initiatives to fight against these restrictions to get-out-the-vote, which she says mostly consists of vigorous, incessant, widespread education. But for November, given expected slowdowns to the U.S. Postal Service, she wants to make one message loud and clear:

“Mail your ballot in two weeks early. Vote early. Vote early,” she said. “This is something we can absolutely control.” 

Adrianne Shropshire 

NEW YORK: Shropshire is a veteran political and community organizer, executive director of BlackPAC, a national organization committed to promoting the Black political infrastructure. 

(Photo courtesy of Adrianne Shropshire)

Spring, Los Angeles, 1992. Widespread riots broke out after four police officers were acquitted in the brutal videotaped beating of Rodney King. 

Adrianne Shropshire, 23 at the time, was working for a local city council person, and began to reconsider everything: “I don’t know that I need to be in City Hall,” she recalls thinking. “I need to be in the community.”

Shropshire immediately left City Hall and joined activists on-the-ground in South Los Angeles, speaking out about police brutality and economic disparities. 

Now Shropshire is the co-founder and executive director of BlackPAC, a super PAC aimed at mobilizing Black voters which was largely motivated by dwindling voter turnout in the community after Barack Obama left the White House.

“Coming out of the two terms of the first Black president, we were concerned about what kind of political infrastructure would be left behind,” Shropshire said. “We wanted to begin to build up very explicit Black political power around the country.”

If measuring success by political victories, BlacPAC scored critical wins. In Virginia’s first Trump-era election in 2017, BlackPAC poured $1.1 million into campaigns to get Black votes for Virgina Democrats in the statewide race, which was credited for keeping candidate Ralph Northam in the governor’s office. 

Leading up to Alabama’s 2017 primary election, BlackPAC funded several on-the-ground Black voter mobilization organizations, including Dejuana Thompson’s Woke Vote, in which analysts touted Black voter turnout as a major factor in Democratic U.S. Senator Doug Jones’ victory. Black voter turnout also increased in the 2018 Midterm elections, contributing to the Democratic-blue wave.

Shropshire said she measures success by how well her organization can bring about a systemic, fundamental mental-shift among the Black communities they touch. 

“Success is defined a little bit differently for us,” she said. “The work that we do is about transforming the way Black people understand themselves as crucial voices in our democracy.”

Laure Miller 

WASHINGTON D.C.: Laura Miller was comforted to know that even Michelle Obama, one of her most powerful heroes, gets imposter syndrome. 

(Photo courtesy of Laura Miller)

As the digital media director for the former first lady’s national book tour for “Becoming,” Miller got to see how Obama would at times appear nervous before walking into a room full of people to give a speech, feeling like she had no idea what she was talking about. 

“I could absolutely relate to her, which surprised me. She’s human.” Miller said. “It was such an honor to watch her power through that – and everything else – each day.” 

At first, Laura Miller, 31, viewed working in politics as a “side-hustle.” Over the summers in high school, she would pass out literature on her state representatives door-to-door in the sweltering Illinois heat. In college, she studied advertising and was on a “Mad Men,” path. But when she applied at the very last second – and was accepted – to the prestigious White House internship in the Office of Digital Strategy, she started to consider politics as a viable career. 

Then she “caught the Obama-bug.” When she finished her White House internship, she began working as the digital program manager for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.  

“There was no going back after that,” she said. 

When Michelle Obama started When We All Vote, her nonpartisan voter registration nonprofit in 2018, Miller was on part of a small team that figured out how to make it happen. As a bonafide digital strategy expert, Miller, who serves as the organization’s mobilization director, was perhaps more prepared than anyone when pandemic restrictions disrupted voter mobilization plans nationwide this year.  

Instead of in-person, on-the-ground voter registration events, When We All Vote has been hosting virtual “couch parties” on Facebook Live since March, showing participants nationwide how to use the app Outvote, the initiative’s texting platform. During the virtual DJ-tracked “dance parties,” participants are encouraged to text eligible voters. After the first event, 500,000 eligible voters were texted and 19,000 people started or completed their registration application. 

As a young woman in politics, Miller says she’s been lucky. On the Obama campaign trail, she said she was constantly surrounded by a slew of powerful women, whom she credits for keeping her inspired and balanced in the notoriously aggressive, male-dominated world of political campaigning. 

“Seeing all these amazing women who continue to empower me and inspire me is something that I think was very unique to the Obama administration,” she said.

Throughout the “Becoming” book tour, Michelle Obama held a community event in every major city, where she would talk to young women about the problems they faced, and what they wanted the future to look like. 

Miller says these events were a highlight of her career, and showed her the true interconnectedness of women around the nation. 

“Students were able to open up and really air their true feelings. They felt comfortable with her,” she said. “I realized women have such a shared story, and people like Michelle Obama are able to bring that out.”

Dejuana Thompson

WASHINGTON D.C: Thomspon is a political activist, consultant and the creator of “Woke Vote,” a nonprofit focused on mobilizing an unprecedented percentage of Black millennial and faith-based voters in Alabama.

(Photo courtesy of Dejuana Thompson)

Dejuana Thompson is logical and hyper-organized in her approach to advocacy. But first, she wants to get people to imagine.

“What does liberation look like? How do you envision your best community? How do you imagine your leaders?” 

These are her questions for community members she engages through Woke Vote, her national voter mobilization organization. 

Imagining better communities is not a new concept for Thompson. Her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama is 80% Black, but her high school didn’t have a Black Studies program. So, at age 15, she organized a district-wide peer meeting to make it happen. 

“If you can find a way to figure this out,” she remembers her principal telling her. “You can do it.”

Decades later, Thompson, 37, started Woke Vote in Birmingham in 2017, following a career in political strategy, including working on the Obama campaign in 2008 and with the Democratic National Committee. Woke Vote now operates in 12 states. But Thompson has plans to expand it to all 50 states within five years, and build upon their international program (Woke Vote currently has a chapter in Ghana, West Africa).

But what does liberation look like for Thompson herself? True to form, she has it all mapped out: “Engage, mobilize and turnout as many African American voters as possible to actually use their voice in November,” she said. 

More specifically, this means 150,000 to 250,000 voters registered through Woke Vote by election day, which she says they are well on their way to doing. 

“And then there are many, many longer term visions,” she emphasized. “But this is the focus for now. I work incrementally.” 

This article is part of a reporting effort by The GroundTruth Project on voting rights in America, with support from the Jesse and Betsy Fink Charitable Fund, Solutions Journalism Network and MacArthur Foundation.

A version of this story appeared on THE GUARDIAN on August 18, 2020

Correction: Brigham said she was “determined to finish if I had to crawl across the finish line.” A previous version suggested she did have to crawl.