The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about unprecedented changes in the world, leaving the right to vote in the United States under siege. One of the pandemic’s most significant impacts will be on the 2020 U.S. presidential election. In its almost 250 years of history, the U.S. has never postponed or canceled a presidential election. Thus, in light of the public health concerns posed by the novel coronavirus, there is a new question that each individual state must come to answer: how will it go about distributing voting rights during this unprecedented time period? Well, Alabama has decided to answer this question by enforcing strict voting laws, which I argue is an indicator of how democracy in the U.S. is backsliding.
People First of Alabama v. Merrill is a court case that is currently being decided in the Supreme Court of Alabama. People First of Alabama has sued Alabama’s Secretary of State John Merrill over state statutes regarding absentee ballots and voter ID laws. People First of Alabama specifically challenged the laws that 1) required absentee ballots be notarized and/or witnessed by two other adults, 2) mandated copies of voter IDs be sent in with all absentee ballot applications, and 3) prohibited curbside voting. These restrictions on voting rights are clear limits on the democratic norms of free and fair elections and the right to vote. People First of Alabama argues that these provisions violate the Voting Rights Act by restricting the fundamental right to vote, failing to provide accommodations for people with disabilities, denying the right to vote based on race and/or color, imposing a test or device as a prerequisite for voting, and imposing a poll tax.
People First of Alabama argues that these restrictive measures discourage citizens from voting. More specifically, they discourage racial minority groups from voting. Alabama’s strict voter ID laws require all citizens who wish to vote to have at least one government-issued photo ID. However, voters that are disproportionately low-income and racial minorities often do not have access to the forms and other administrative materials needed to obtain a government-issued photo ID. Additionally, in order to obtain most IDs, a small fee is required, which is what People First of Alabama argues is effectively a poll tax.
The justification of using these restrictive measures, in the past and during the COVID-19 pandemic, has been to authenticate voters’ absentee ballots. Notarizing absentee ballots and having witnesses verify the person that is sending in the ballot seemingly prevents a “fraudulent” election. However, this argument simply has no basis. The Heritage Foundation, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., found that only 19 cases of voter fraud occurred in Alabama from 2000 to 2019. That’s 19 cases in 20 years. Additionally, members of the U.S. military posted overseas have been voting by mail since the Civil War, and no one has ever questioned the legitimacy of those votes. Therefore, when ruling on this case, the Supreme Court of Alabama must ask itself: do these strict laws on voting rights promote a less “fraudulent” democracy, or simply pave the way for an administration that is not representative of the people? Because, based on the facts, all they seem to do is prevent a crucial portion of the American polity from exercising their constitutional right to vote.
States like Alabama enforcing strict voting laws are indicative of how democracy in the U.S. is backsliding. State legislatures pass these laws under the pretense that they help prevent voter fraud. However, democracy is actually backsliding with the enforcement of these laws because citizens who are disproportionately low-income and racial minorities are not able to vote. These laws are representative of how democratic backsliding is happening much more subtly today. As mentioned in On Democratic Backsliding by Nancy Bormeo, in the post-Cold War era, democratic backsliding has not occurred via explicit means, such as a coup or violent transition of power. Rather, it occurs through small, seemingly legal changes, such as Alabama’s voting laws. Partisan gerrymandering, playing along party lines, and strict voting laws are only a few examples of how a democratic stronghold, such as the U.S., has been experiencing subtle democratic backsliding.
These restrictive voting laws also represent the broader picture of polarization in American democracy. Polarization between Democrats and Republicans has reached an all-time high, with members of both political parties backing increasingly extreme ideological views. Members of both parties have also been increasing their hate for the opposing party in addition to supporting their own party. In fact, 80% of Americans dislike their partisan opponents, a figure that has nearly tripled since the 1990s. Due to the polarization between the two parties, each is bound to take measures to keep the other from obtaining power. These “measures” often include enforcing strict voting laws to prevent a certain portion of the population from voting in order to keep a specific political party in power. In Alabama, a Republican stronghold, Republicans hope to keep the population voting for the Democrats because they know they would lose power if they did not enforce restrictive voting laws.
The polarization that Alabama’s restrictive voting laws cause is also destructive for democracy in addition to the enforcement of the laws themselves. In Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, Robert Dahl states that to achieve a fully democratic state, citizens must have unimpaired opportunities to formulate their preferences, signify their preferences to their fellow citizens and the government, and have their preferences weighed equally in the conduct of the government. And in order for citizens to be able to do these three things, government institutions must provide eight guarantees, two of which are the right to vote and free and fair elections. We have already established how the right to vote is being threatened and why that shows democratic backsliding. As for free and fair elections, in a polarized Alabama where Republican incumbents and majorities are essentially manipulating the law into their favor, those elections are anything but “free and fair.”
Amidst this COVID-19 pandemic, American citizens must be wary of the subtle democratic backsliding that is occurring in the U.S. They must choose to take action, like People First of Alabama, to prevent the U.S. from destroying the institutions that have forever governed its existence. Although People First of Alabama v. Merrill is not a case under review by the U.S. Supreme Court and therefore does not concern all American citizens, the ruling of the Supreme Court of Alabama is likely to be very controversial. The Alabama laws will continue to be used during a time when most American citizens will be voting by mail or using absentee ballots, meaning this ruling has the potential to determine whether a very large portion of the population will be able to vote. Alabama is a state that is notorious for brutal voter suppression tactics, such as these strict voting laws. This means if People First of Alabama can get the court to rule in its favor, many southern states in the U.S. that have similar laws, such as Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina, are capable of doing the same.