Voting through a Pandemic

03 November 2020

As Americans prepared for another important election this year, they faced a complication that pushed many to take new measures to ensure their voices were heard. The Covid-19 pandemic led to increased early and mail-in voting throughout the nation as people tried to avoid gathering in large crowds on election day. Yet, 2020 is not the first time an election collided with the outbreak of a deadly illness.

In 1918, South Dakota’s suffragists geared up to rally support for the proposed Amendment E to the state constitution. If approved, the measure would grant women the right to vote—a goal the suffragists had tried and failed to reach for fifty years. As the election approached, the H1N1 strain of influenza, commonly called the Spanish Flu, engulfed the state. The outbreak disrupted the suffragists’ plans, making any fieldwork, especially petition drives, difficult. Campaigners feared exposure to the illness, and restrictions on large gatherings derailed rallies and meetings. The epidemic, wrote South Dakota Universal Franchise League finance chair Mabel F. Rewman, “terrorized people to such an extent that they are afraid to either go out of their houses or go into them.”5003_COVER FINAL CROPPED.jpg

Numerous leaders throughout the country, including Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, caught the disease. Suffrage proponents in South Dakota grew concerned that influenza would keep people from the polls, siphoning votes away from the amendment and resulting in yet another defeat. In the end, enough supporters turned out to vote for Amendment E for it to pass by a significant margin. Two years later, the thirty-six states required to ratify an amendment to the United States Constitution had approved the Nineteenth Amendment, and equal voting rights for women became the law of the land.

The experiences of the women involved in the suffrage movement, including those who campaigned during the Spanish Flu, are detailed in the Fall 2020 issue of South Dakota History, the quarterly journal of the South Dakota State Historical Society. Entitled “Celebrating Woman Suffrage,” this special issue highlights stories, ephemera, and historical resources related to the movement in South Dakota and on the Northern Great Plains, shedding new light on the suffragists’ fifty-year fight to gain their voice in the political process. For ordering information, visit sdhspress.com/journal or call (605) 773-6009.

—Michael Burns


Pro-suffrage groups used print material, such as the poster at top, to garner support for their cause going into the 1918 election.