The Vote: Exploring voting rights in America

 A new grant priority for Fall-Winter 2019-2020

To commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, Mass Humanities will prioritize funding public programs in 2020 that use the humanities to explore voting rights in America. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declared that the right to vote could not be denied on the basis of a person’s sex. Ratified in 1920, it marked a major victory in the women’s movement by extending the vote to women. But with racism and xenophobia on the rise in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many women of color, like their menfolk, could still not vote. Poll taxes and literacy tests effectively barred many African Americans from voting, especially in the South, and Native Americans in 1920 could gain the right to vote only by severing their ties to their tribes. Many states had passed laws making it illegal for noncitizens to vote, and Chinese Americans were barred from citizenship. Clearly the ratification of the 19th Amendment represents a complicated moment in our nation’s history, one that warrants thoughtful reflection on how to commemorate it.

The year 2020 arrives at another pivotal period in our nation’s electoral history. Some states are considering extending the franchise to felons and younger teens, while others have increased the hurdles to voting. As voting rights, voter fraud, and electoral security are being debated across the country, the humanities offer essential resources for deepening our understanding of this moment.

Mass Humanities invites applications for projects that explore the many dimensions of voting rights in America, using the lens of history, literature, philosophy, jurisprudence, identity-based studies, or any other humanities discipline. “The Vote” grant opportunity will be available as part of the fall 2019 Project Grant round and the winter 2020 Discussion Grant round.


Inquiry Form (LOI) Deadline Application Deadline Approximate
Earliest Funded
Event Date
Funding up to
Project Grant September 9, 2019 October 28, 2019 December 16, 2019 Mid-January, 2020 $15,000
Discussion Grant November 6, 2019 December 4, 2019 January 8, 2020 Early February, 2020 $3,500

To qualify for “The Vote” priority

Projects must:

Explore the subject of voting rights in America. Mass Humanities especially encourages projects that:

  • are attentive to the complexity of the subject
  • situate voting rights within broader contexts
  • reflect critically on what it means to commemorate achievements like the ratification of the 19th Amendment or the Voting Rights Act
  • offer multiple perspectives
  • help the audience to better understand the present

Engage humanities fields like history, literature, philosophy, jurisprudence, and identity-based studies.

  • Social science fields like political science and government can be engaged by elaborating on qualitative more than quantitative research and by using methodologies common in humanities disciplines.
  • Artistic projects such as storytelling, theater, or fine arts are eligible if they involve the audience in critical reflection on the arts. Mass Humanities can fund a moderated discussion of a play, for instance, but not the cost of mounting the play.

Serve the needs of Massachusetts residents.

Have a project scholar with documented expertise related to the project’s content.

  • A Mass Humanities Program Officer can help you find a scholar. It is best to contact us well before a Letter of Intent form (LOI) is due.

Projects may:

Focus on Massachusetts

  • Massachusetts’ role in the history of voting rights embodies some of the tensions evident in the period before 1920: in 1850, Massachusetts became the first state to host a national women’s rights convention and in 1855 was one of only five states in which black suffrage was legal; yet it waited longer than most other states to allow for voting irrespective of income, and in the early twentieth century it was a hub of the anti-suffrage campaign that sought to deny women the right to vote.

Explore voting rights in a broader national or transnational context, as long as the U.S. is a point of comparison.

Take a variety of formats, including: community discussion forums; lectures and panel discussions; moderated book- or film-discussion groups; exhibits; oral history projects (see criteria); digital media and film projects (see criteria), after-school and school-based programs; and other public-facing humanities projects.

Projects may not:

Engage in advocacy. A project that engages in advocacy leads audiences to think in a particular way or to support a particular policy.  Instead, Mass Humanities encourages projects that help audiences see an issue from a variety of perspectives so they can come to their own conclusion.

Engage in policy debates. Instead, projects may educate audiences about particular aspects of voting rights – from the perspectives of history, political philosophy, ethics, literary or artistic analysis, etc. – so they can make their own decisions about which policies to support or resist.

Sample frameworks for projects:

How did your community play a role in the history of voting rights?

Example: Exhibit of suffragists from your town that explores the broader social and political contexts informing their work, with curriculum development for visits by 8th – grade civics classes.  The scholar is a historian of the women’s suffrage movement.

Who was left out?

Example: A panel discussion exploring how many people of color were excluded from the vote between the passage of the 19th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, with a facilitated conversation with the audience about how that legacy still shapes communities of color today.  The scholar has expertise in critical race theory and teaches courses that cover these topics.

How do democracies make decisions about who should vote?

Example: A library-based reading group using excerpts of ancient and modern texts about who should have the right to vote and on what basis (age, citizenship status, criminal record, property, etc.)  The scholar is a political philosopher with an interest in these questions.

On what basis did people disagree with each other?

Example: A staged debate, based on speeches and other documents, between historical figures who supported and argued against the passage of the 15th Amendment, which declared that the vote could not be denied on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, followed by a facilitated discussion amongst the audience.  The scholar is a specialist in African American history and Reconstruction.