When Colorado became a state in 1876, there was a provision in the state’s constitution that women’s suffrage could become law through a popular referendum, which only required a majority vote, instead of a constitutional amendment, which required two-thirds, as well as the promise the referendum would take place within a year. In 1877, the referendum came to a vote and the suffragists lost.
The suffragists regrouped and reorganized, creating coalitions of supporters across Colorado society. Still, it took sixteen years for the referendum to get on the ballot again. This time, due to better organization, a clear message, a unified national suffrage movement, the support of newspapers and multiple organizations, and an uncertain economy with voters willing to “try something new”, the referendum passed 55-45. It was the first case of women’s suffrage being approved by popular vote instead of legislatively.
Why am I telling this story? I’m not trying to draw any sort parallel to today’s US election. This election is unique in American history, in my opinion. But, I do think some of the lessons learned by the Colorado suffragists in 1877 that led to success in 1893 will be borne out today.
Politics is local.
It’s telling that one of the mistakes the 1877 referendum made was bringing in outsiders to pitch their cause. Of course, this was 1877, the end of reconstruction, and the country was tired as hell with outsiders coming in and telling them everything they were doing wrong. (In the case of the Southern states, they needed to be told, and they should have listened, but that’s another essay.) Even now, people look askew at outsiders. The 1893 referendum succeeded with a focus on local grassroots support.
If the 2016 election did anything, it was motivate grassroots organizing. I would say look to the results in Texas for proof that focus on running locally instead of nationally will make a difference. But, I live in Texas and I know what lengths the GOP state leaders have gone to to repress the votes of minorities and the poor. Instead, look to Florida, where Andrew Gillum and Bill Nelson are focusing on state issues, especially climate change.
Candidates with a clear message will win.
In the 1893 referendum, the suffragists focused on two ideas that seem contradictory, but are not. One, is that women are equal to men and should be afforded the same voting rights as men. The second is that women are different than men and would bring their expertise from the home and allow them to extend their care-taking abilities by voting to help reform society. In short, they played the gender card and actually won. No word on if men realized women were inferring they didn’t have the morality required to reform society.
I’ve seen Beto speak three times now and he is nothing if not focused on a message that more unites us than separates us, civility, and working together for a common good. His policy ideas are progressive, and unapologetically so. He hasn’t shied away from answering tough questions, and his answers to those questions increased his support, contrary to what consultants and talking heads would have told you.
Candidates who don’t deviate from their message will win.
Though their message was apparently contradictory, the suffragists didn’t shy away from it. Democrats across the country (except in states Trump won) are doing the same. They are sticking to progressive ideas and policies when common sense would have them move to the middle to snatch some left leaning republicans. It’s almost as if they’ve realized they shouldn’t be going after those people, but instead are going after the people who agree with their policies and don’t typically vote, such as 18-29 year olds. The voting participation of that group is way up from other elections, so it’s working. Here’s hoping the Dems see that as a new way forward, and keep the momentum in the 2020 elections.
Building coalitions is critical to winning elections.
The left is full of different groups rowing the same way now. The goal is to create a check on Trump, try to defeat him in 2020, and possibly win back Congress, too. I think it can be done; everyone is pretty fired up. The test will be how well all these factions work together when that happens.
Sometimes, there needs to be a disaster to wake people up.
The disaster in 1893 was an economic turndown. The disaster in 1932 was a deepening of the Depression. The disaster in 2008 was the Great Recession and the Bush wars. All economic based. This year it’s different. The economy is doing well. The disaster is Trump and the GOP and the very real threat of our country turning into a fascist, authoritarian, minority rule government. Voter participation will be off the charts, which means that Trump, Pence, Sessions and every republican secretary of state that Dems win will cry voter fraud. (They’ve already planted the seed.) I’ve believed for over a year that there is a real chance that the true constitutional crisis will start tomorrow, the day after the election. I hope I’m wrong, but that is my biggest fear.
If that happens we all need to be up to challenging it. Our ancestors worked too hard to earn everyone the right to vote for one political party to try to hijack a free and fair election because they’ve lost. Vote today to make your voice heard, and be ready tomorrow to keep yelling.
The 1877 referendum is the frame for my novel, HERESY. While the success or failure of the referendum doesn’t affect the story, it is used to show how women were fighting against the patriarchal society in the public sphere, while my characters were fighting against it in the private sphere.