By: Julia Vitale
Women’s suffrage has been an essential factor in the advancement of women’s rights, including abortion, contraception, health care coverage, and protections against discrimination in the workplace. It is no surprise that women’s voting rights, and voting rights in general, still take center stage among feminists and civil rights activists. Even though it is constitutional law that no U.S. citizen can be barred from voting based on their race or sex, there are still women, particularly women of color, who cannot legally cast their ballots on election day. This is because of criminal disenfranchisement laws— like Article VI, Section 4 of Florida’s State Constitution—that revoke voting rights based on felony convictions, often for life.
As advocates of women’s rights, it is important to recognize the relationship between restoring voting rights for women felons and advancing women’s health. The passing of Amendment 4 in Florida during the midterm elections may signal new hope for advancing voting rights and safeguarding women’s health.
On November 6, 2018 Florida voters ended felony disenfranchisement and restored the voting rights of more than 1.5 million citizens with felony convictions. The passage of Amendment 4 is a welcome step towards ending the voter suppression of people of color and economically disadvantaged people in Florida. It means more women in Florida can vote on issues that impact them, their families, and their health. The chance to vote means the chance for representation. And, for women who come from low-income, single-provider households—as female felons often do—the chance for representation is imperative.
As of July 2018, Florida is one of three states that still upholds full bans on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for citizens with drug related felonies, a rule that unfairly targets women of color, and Black women in particular. Nationwide, 80% of Black mothers are breadwinners for their families. They are also disproportionately concentrated in low earning jobs with few benefits, making access to food stamps, child care, and other social support services a critical issue for many of these women. Yet in Florida, Black mothers with drug related felony convictions are banned from using many of these services, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a program designed to help needy families achieve self-sufficiency.
Low- and moderate-income individuals across the U.S. depend on government assistance to achieve safety and security for themselves and their families, yet GOP lawmakers and the Trump administration remain adamant about cutting government funds for these vital programs. Protecting and restoring access to welfare services for women of color with felony convictions is critical to securing the health and autonomy of all women of color. We must restore voting rights in states that still uphold lifetime bans so that women felons can have decision-making power on issues that impact them and their families.
Suffrage and civic participation are cornerstones of democracy and the wellspring of social progress. Safeguarding women’s voting rights, especially those of women of color, ensures women a continued voice in the decisions that impact their lives and their health. It is time to act against voter suppression and safeguard women and people of color’s access to the polls.
We must consider these issues from a public health perspective. The future of women’s health and American democracy depends on it.