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Susan B. Anthony House and the Contemporary Supreme Court Voting Rights Case

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Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

Susan B. Anthony House and the Contemporary Supreme Court Voting Rights Case

Nickie Phillips

Guest post by Demetra M. Pappas, JD, MSc, PhD Earlier in the week, I was at a dinner meeting with some colleagues who work with Finger Lakes Wine Country. Having visited the Finger Lakes earlier this year, I commented to a colleague that I had recently visited the Susan B. Anthony House, located in Rochester, New York. I was well impressed with the elegant modesty of the home, moved by Anthony’s personal purse (which to me resembled a doctor’s black bag) and taken with learning about her role in the ant-slavery movement (as well as that of women’s rights).  

As luck would have it, I saw the home of “Susan B.” as local historian Preston Pierce calls her, shortly after the United States Supreme Court heard argument on the (currently pending) case of Shelby County  v. Holder and the week after argument was heard in Arizona v. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona.

In short, the Alabama county argues that Section 5 in the Voting Rights Act, which requires several state and local governments to seek Justice Department approval when changing voting statutes, is outdated and unconstitutional. The question is whether voter ID laws that prevent minorities from casting their ballots provide incontestable proof of the necessity of stricter voting rights laws.  More formally stated, did the decision of Congress, in 2006, reauthorizing Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act under the pre-existing coverage formula of Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act exceed its authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and thus violating the Tenth Amendment and Article IV of the United States Constitution.  The Arizona case regards a law requiring documentary proof of citizenship when registering to vote;  indeed, Proposition 200 requires that citizens present certain specified proof of citizenship when registering to vote, and requires that voters present identification at the polls on Election Day in order to vote

Like many, I await the result of this “blockbuster” pair of cases (as the late June decisions frequently are – among the others awaited this June are the same-sex marriage pair of cases).  In my Fall teaching classes, I require students to write an essay about how they registered (or not) to vote, and, where not, why not.  The non-voters often provide the most interesting material.  Last year, the 17-year-olds in my intro Principles of Sociology class pointedly expressed dismay at not being able to participate fully in the discussion (by voting), while international students wrote of the leadership selection process in their home countries. When I had a guest speaker, Elsa M. Shartsis, come in to discuss the voter ID cases (on Election Day, the first day of class after Hurricane Sandy), I was astonished to learn that her late father would not have been qualified to vote in his native Pennsylvania, because he was born on a farm and did not have a birth certificate.  Less than two hours after Shartsis’ talk, I voted by affidavit in New York, under the provisions of Governor Cuomo (and know many who did similarly in New Jersey, further to Governor Christie’s provisions).

I must wonder what Susan B. would make of all of this, nearly a century after the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, gave women the right to vote. If “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” taking so many years after passage of the Fifteenth Amendment regarding “race, color or previous condition of servitude,” let us hope that we are not about to have constitutional law take any steps backward.

Demetra M. Pappas, JD, MSc, PhD, currently teaches in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at St. Francis College, where she was named the 2011/2012 SGA Faculty Member of the Year, for her innovative teaching methods and student mentoring. Her first book, The Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide Debate, (Greenwood Press: 2012) has been nominated for the 2013 British Society of Criminology Book Prize. She also writes about dramaturgy, culinary culture, visual sociology and criminal justice issues.