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Persistence in the fight for voting rights: Honoring N.C.’s first female legislator

Lillian Exum Clement was a native of Black Mountain and the first female legislator in the Southeast. She was the fourth woman in North Carolina to pass the state bar exam and the first practicing female attorney without male partners. 

As part of the centennial celebration of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, The League of Women Voters Asheville Chapter honored Clement, known to her contemporaries as Exum, or simply Ex. 

“I am, by nature, a very timid woman, and very conservative too, but I am firm in my convictions. I want to blaze a trail for other women. I know that two years from now there will be many other women in the legislature. But you have to start a thing, you know,” Exum was quoted as saying in the Raleigh Observer after she arrived in Raleigh to join the State Legislature in 1921. 

She did indeed “start a thing.” After winning the democratic primary with an all-male electorate in her district, the 19th Amendment passed later that year, and Exum was able to vote for herself in the general election. 

For her first, and only term in the state house, Exum had an impressive congressional record. Among the 17 bills she introduced were bills to ensure privacy in voting booths on Election Day, create standards for sanitation in livestock barns and tuberculin testing for cattle herds, and to reduce the number of years of separation required for divorce (on grounds of separation) from 10 to five. 

When Exum was married in 1923 during her term, the General Assembly had to enact a new law to change her name for roll call, having never encountered this issue. 

Exum died in 1925 from complications of influenza. 

“We honor the sacrifices of the women that came before us to secure women’s right to vote through passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 and in the 100 years since have continued to work for equal access to the vote for everyone,” said Kelly Fowler, president of the League of Women Voters Asheville Chapter. 

 

The fight continues 

Women are only one group of voters in the United States that have had to fight long and hard for the right to vote. Black people in the United States did not win full voting rights until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While Native Americans were deemed U.S. citizens in the Snyder decision of 1924, individual states were able to keep them from voting for several more decades until the Civil Rights Act was passed. Several states still do not automatically restore voting rights after time served for felony convictions. 

Despite all the work that has been done by citizens for voting rights and likening itself to the gold standard of Democratic political governance, the United States ranks 25th on the Democracy Index, put together each year by the Intelligence Unit of The Economist. There are a combination of factors driving this low democracy rating, factors that most Americans recognize. 

“The barriers to women voting are universal for all voters, especially in Black, brown, and Indigenous communities. These barriers include misinformation campaigns about how and what’s needed to vote. Young women (and men) who are new to voting can be especially vulnerable to misinformation, for example, how to register as a college student,” said Fowler.

According to Rachel Clay, Southeastern Regional Coordinator for the Campus Vote Project, the 2013 Supreme Court Case Shelby v. Holder is one major cause for infringements on voting rights in recent years. This case overturned the necessity for “preclearance,” or federal oversight, of new elections and voting laws in selected areas that had a history of discrimination in voting. 

“This decision essentially nullified the Voting Rights Act of 1965, getting rid of the formula which placed North Carolina under preclearance so that all of our election laws had to be reviewed for their discriminatory impact. This cleared a bunch of states, particularly in the South, to introduce whatever election legislation they wanted to and North Carolina, honestly waiting in earnest for this moment, was the first state to do so,” said Clay. “N.C. legislators introduced a myriad of voter suppression laws.” 

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, hundreds of measures making it harder to vote have been introduced in state houses since 2013. These measures include things like strict photo ID requirements, limitations on who can provide assistance at polling places, reducing early voting days, closing polling locations, purging voters from state voting rolls and drawing election districts in ways that diminish the power of voters of color. 

About 56 percent of the voting age population voted in the 2016 presidential election, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. This ranks the U.S. 26 out of 32 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. According to the Pew Research Center, almost all countries ahead of the U.S. in voter turnout have automatic voter enrollment. 

 

The work today

Part of the work League of Women Voters does is to help inform people about voting. 

“This requires educating everyone to know how to check their registration status, to know early voting dates and locations, and how to obtain and cast an absentee ballot,” said Fowler. 

In addition to the everyday barriers to American voters, this election cycle will include a global pandemic. Fowler said the League of Women Voters is currently participating in 21 lawsuits in 18 states to hold election officials accountable for failure to mitigate the effects the COVID-19 pandemic — disproportionately affecting Black and Indigenous communities — is having on elections. 

“These lawsuits aim to maintain a variety of voting options, including in-person voting, so that COVID-19 mitigation cannot be used as a pretense for disenfranchisement,” said Fowler. “We are also supporting several efforts to prevent voter purges and to defeat vote dilution and racial gerrymandering in state and federal courts.” 

Fowler says the League’s biggest concern for this election cycle is misinformation. 

“We’re concerned that the negativity and misinformation will turn people off from voting or instill fear and panic about whether their vote will count or will they be safe in casting their vote.”

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