By President Emilio Varanini and
Chairman of the Board of Representatives Howard “Chip” Wilkins
As we head to the polls this week for the California primary, we are reminded of the awesome responsibility that comes with the long struggle for voting rights, a right critical to our system and the rule of law at the heart of the mission of the California Lawyers Association.
For many years after our country was founded, significant portions of the population could not vote. In fact, it’s fair to say that at the dawn of the Republic more people were disenfranchised than enfranchised, including women, leaving the promise in the Declaration of Independence of the government deriving consent from the governed unfulfilled. Circumstances changed for women — as we’re celebrating this year — with the ratification of the 19th amendment on Aug. 18, 1920. As a result of the passage of the 19 th Amendment, millions of women will cast their ballots in the California primary election on Wednesday and more women than ever before are running for public office at all levels across the country.
The story of voting rights in this country is one that continues to the present. For many groups of people, legal obstacles to exercising the right to vote continue. Many of us know that the passage of the 15 th Amendment in 1870 permitted African American men to vote but that was a right rendered all but meaningless by the post-Reconstruction imposition of Jim Crow laws with their poll taxes and literacy tests.
Many of the same mechanisms used to disenfranchise the descendants of enslaved Africans were also used to disenfranchise other people of color including Latinx voters. Taking the case of Mexican American voters in Texas as an example, all-White primaries were only ruled unlawful in Smith vs. Allright (1944). And it was not until 1954 and the case of Hernandez vs. Texas that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in the context of jury service, that the equal protection clause of the 14 th Amendment was not just a matter of Black and White but that its protections extended to other people who constituted “a distinct class.”
The circumstances of indigenous people — Native Americans and Alaska natives — is even more complicated. It wasn’t until 1958 that North Dakota gave Native Americans living on reservations the right to vote. Challenges continue to this day. The geographic distance to polling sites is a barrier that hits Native populations particularly hard. And, according to Asian Americans Advancing Justice (“AAAJ”), as recently as 2004 Asian Americans supporting a Vietnamese candidate were challenged at the polls in Alabama. And, lest we think disenfranchisement of communities of color is only a Southern problem, AAAJ reports that in 2005 the city of Boston was found guilty of discriminating against Spanish-speaking, Chinese and Vietnamese voters.
Voting is a right and a responsibility that none of us should take for granted. Its exercise helps ensure a thriving and responsive government and system of laws. Our Republic relies on the participation of an informed electorate. Yet knowledge of our government and civic engagement is on the decline. A 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 26 percent of Americans could name all three branches of government, which was a significant decline from previous years.
Led by the Chief Justice of California Tani Cantil-Sakauye, as supported by CLA and other bar associations, the judicial branch here in California is doing its part to address this through its Power of Democracy campaign, which includes engagement with educators and students.
Every February, the Chief Justice, along with the State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, celebrates public schools’ efforts to engage students in civic learning with their Civic Learning Awards.
In addition to supporting the Chief Justice in her civics education efforts, we at CLA are increasing our own engagement with the other branches of state government here in Sacramento, which has been our home since early 2019. We will share more about our efforts in this regard next month, so stay tuned.
And we hope our members, and the profession as a whole in this state, will feel inspired to join our civics engagement initiative. The CLA, in carrying out its mission of facilitating diversity, equity, and inclusion and supporting the fair administration of justice and the rule of law, is creating new opportunities to help with civics engagement at the K-12 level and in the community. Meanwhile, please exercise your fundamental right to vote by going to the polls!