Thin and Thick Conceptions of the Nineteenth Amendment Right to Vote and Congress’s Power to Enforce It
Richard L. Hasen & Leah M. Litman
This Article, prepared for a Georgetown Law Journal symposium on the Nineteenth Amendment’s one-hundred-year anniversary, explores and defends a “thick” conception of the Nineteenth Amendment right to vote and Congress’s power to enforce it. A “thin” conception of the Nineteenth Amendment maintains that the Amendment merely prohibits states from enacting laws that prohibit women from voting once the state decides to hold an election. And a “thin” conception of Congress’s power to enforce the Nineteenth Amendment maintains that Congress may only supply remedies for official acts that violate the Amendment’s substantive guarantees.
This Article argues the Nineteenth Amendment does more. A “thick” understanding of the Nineteenth Amendment’s substantive right is consistent with the Amendment’s text and history, as well as with a synthetic interpretation of the Constitution and its expanding guarantees of voting rights. The thick understanding of the Nineteenth Amendment would allow voting-rights plaintiffs to attack restrictive voting laws burdening women—especially those laws burdening young women of color, who are also guaranteed nondiscrimination in voting on the basis of age and race. A thick understanding of Congress’s power to enforce the Nineteenth Amendment would give Congress the ability to pass laws protecting women from voter discrimination and promoting their political equality. The thick understanding offers a way to redeem the Amendment from some of its racist origins and entanglement with the sexism that limited the Amendment’s reach. It also reinforces the democratic legitimacy of the Constitution. Nonetheless, the current Court is unlikely to embrace a thick understanding of the Nineteenth Amendment.