The 2020 Presidential election has been unique in its placement in our history in just about every possible way.
From the impeachment of the president running for reelection to a pandemic that’s claimed the lives of nearly three-hundred thousand as of the end of October to record-breaking voter turnout, this election has had more news cycles and October Surprises than could even be thought possible (Andrew, 2020). Despite this, states have experienced record turnout. With still less than a week to go before the conclusion of early voting as well as day-of voting, Texas voters in this election have amounted to eighty-seven percent of all votes cast in the 2016 presidential election. (Cai & Pollock, 2020).
In response to the increased enthusiasm among voters against the President, many Republican-controlled states (states with a Republican governor) have resorted to tactics to make voting more difficult. The goal of this voter suppression is to, of course, benefit the incumbent officeholders at the ballot box in regards to the Presidency and the United States Senate, both of which are considered competitive.
The Erosion of Democracy
Nancy Bermeo argues that democratic backsliding is currently happening throughout the world in many ways, one of which is strategic harassment and manipulation. This is when elected executives, such as governors, legally make institutional changes that harm the opposition to that executive’s priorities (2020, p. 10). This method is particularly insidious because of the inherently hidden nature of this degradation of democracy. In the United States, Texas in particular, is embracing this anti-democratic tactic by making it much more difficult to vote (vote-by mail, purging voter rolls, reducing access to drop-boxes and polling places) during the pandemic.
Ozan Varol defines stealth authoritarianism as “[using] the law to entrench the status quo, insulate the incumbents from meaningful democratic challenges, and pave the way for the creation of a dominant-party or one-party state” (2015, pp. 1678-1681). Additionally, the measures we have in the United States to detect anti-democratic measures have traditionally only targeted obvious deficiencies (Ibid). To further contextualize these issues, the state of Texas will be put under the looking glass.
Governor Greg Abbott and Voting Restrictions
Texas was a vital state in the 2020 election due to its large electoral prize and demographic trends that conventional wisdom says are expected to benefit Democrats. In light of this, Texas was viewed as a must-win state for Republicans and a proverbial juicy steak for Democrats who have not carried it on the Presidential level since Jimmy Carter in 1976. (Savicki, 2020).
Greg Abbott is the current two-term Republican Governor of Texas who was reelected in 2018. During the first week of October, Governor Abbott ordered that all counties would be limited to a single drop-box for absentee ballots. The result of this order is that Houston’s nearly five million residents would have the same number of drop-boxes as my current home in Bowie County, which has a population of around ninety-three thousand (Economist, 2020). This move, which was temporarily blocked by a federal judge, has largely been seen to deter turnout as the reduced availability of drop-boxes keeps voters from turning in their ballots. In a state that is seeing the most contested election since Bill Clinton’s three-point loss in 1992, every vote counts for a fair result.
Additionally, Texas, like much of the country, is experiencing a stronger wave of COVID-19 cases; despite this, the Republican-controlled state government has not expanded its limited vote-by-mail capabilities nor have face coverings been required at polls (Villarreal, 2020). This lack of change is sure to dissuade voters to turn out because it can force voters to make the difficult choice between completing their civic duty and keeping their health and safety as their top priority.
The actions taken by Governor Abbott and the Texas Republican Party are intended to protect their party’s incumbents (principally President Trump and Senator Cornyn in the most recent election) as best as possible in the face of unexpectedly close challenges.
The task of protecting against the above anti-democratic measures has, however, been complicated since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that would have required the state of Texas, alongside other states, to seek permission from the federal government in order to enact any new voting regulations (Shelby County v. Holder, 2013). This Supreme Court decision has allowed states like Texas to continually restrict voting rights in their states without fearing federal retribution.
Colorado—Embracing the Right to Vote
Colorado is in strong opposition to Texas when it comes to embracing the right to vote and making voting easier for their population. For example, while Texas has strict guidelines for requesting a mail-in ballot that include being out of the county that you are registered in for all of election day and the early voting period, Colorado is one of a handful of states that sends mail ballots to all registered voters—without a need to request.
According to the Electoral Integrity Project (based on 2018 data), Colorado was ranked with “very high” election integrity and placed eleven out of fifty-one (D.C. included) (Norris et. al., 2019). Texas, on the other hand, placed forty-five and was considered to have moderate election integrity. This is simply because the restrictions that Governor Abbott has signed into law do nothing to protect the integrity of the election but do everything to suppress the right to vote for otherwise eligible voters.
Further evidence of Colorado’s devotion to open elections comes through various other regulations rather than restrictions. The Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act of 2013 “created voting centers where any registered resident could cast a ballot (instead of assigned polling places) and allowed residents to register the day of the election” (Kleiner, 2020). Because of the concerted effort by Colorado lawmakers and the Colorado Secretary of State (currently Jena Griswold), elections in Colorado are hailed across the nation as some of the most efficient and open in the United States. On the same coin, as mentioned previously, Colorado is not home to many, if any, of the few cases of voter fraud since 2000. If Colorado can manage to conduct the extremely accessible elections that they have this entire decade, why can’t Texas?
Refutation of Conflicting Arguments
The primary argument for these restrictions and against the idea of democratic backsliding is that these measures are necessary to preserve the integrity of our elections. While there is credence to the idea of preventing voter fraud, the reality is that instances of voter fraud are next to nonexistent (Sullivan & Ax, 2020). Integrity is of the upmost importance, but the current actions being taken by executives across the country are disenfranchising the opposition simply for being the opposition, not for any higher goal of protecting the ballot box.
The presidential election on November 3rd, 2020 presents unique challenges. In the midst of a global pandemic, with deaths in the United States nearing three-hundred thousand and hospitalizations nearing half a million, states largely run by the Republican Party have made a point to make voting more difficult, forcing voters to choose between their civic duty and the health and safety of themselves and their family (The Atlantic Monthly Group, 2020). In spite of this, Texas voters are leading the nation in early voting and are on pace to shatter voting numbers in 2016’s presidential election (Cai & Pollock, 2020).
According to Nancy Bermeo and Ozan Varol, democratic backsliding (erosion) today is more likely to occur through legitimate legal channels than violent uprisings. Stealth authoritarianism and strategic manipulation, the terms coined by Bermeo and Varol, are methods that are used by incumbent ruling classes to cement their power for as long as possible. This is being done by limiting the amount of options that voters have, such as reducing the amount of available drop boxes for absentee ballots, reducing the number of polling places, and not requiring CDC-approved safety measures at polling places. In some places, voters who refuse to wear a mask, even when provided one by poll workers, will be able to expedite the voting process by skipping long lines, being moved outdoors, or voting curbside in places that allow (Tolan, 2020).
Additionally, due to the recent nature of the election, we do not know the victors in all races and margins are yet to be certified. Even still, Democrats failed to capture any target in the state of Texas (targets included the legislature, electoral votes, U.S. Senate, and multiple U.S. House races). While we may not currently know every reason for these failures, it is highly likely that election disinformation and the democratic erosion techniques discussed previously contributed to the environment that led to those losses. Overall, the state of our democracy is under attack by many actors in one of the two major political parties by reducing voting rights and voting access. Regardless of the political persuasion of anyone in the populace, democratic values must be recognized to be targeted and is a great injustice.
Andrew, S. (2020, October 2). How the phrase ‘October surprise’ entered the political lexicon. CNN. from https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/02/politics/october-surprise-what-is-trnd/index.html
The Atlantic Monthly Group. (2020). The COVID Tracking Project. From https://covidtracking.com/data/national
Bermeo, N. (2016). On democratic backsliding. Journal of Democracy, 27(1), 5-19.
Cai, M., Pollock, C. (2020, October 27). Texas hits record high for early voting turnout. The Texas Tribune. from https://www.texastribune.org/2020/10/27/texas-record-high-early-voting-turnout/.
The Economist. (2020, October 10). At risk of losing Texas, Republicans scheme to limit Democratic votes. from https://www.economist.com/united-states/2020/10/10/at-risk-of-losing-texas-republicans-scheme-to-limit-democratic-votes.
Kleiner, S. (2020, October 23). Colorado’s Voting Laws are a Model for Other States Looking to Expand Access. From https://publicintegrity.org/politics/elections/us-polling-places/colorado-vote-laws-model-for-states-expand-access/
Lerner, S. (2020, October 5). Texas Voter Suppression Tactics Recall the Jim Crow Era. The Intercept. from https://theintercept.com/2020/10/05/texas-voter-suppression-greg-abbott-absentee/.
Norris, P., Grömping, M., Garnett, H. A., 2019, “Perceptions of Electoral Integrity – US 2018 (PEI_US_2018)”, https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/METZ3U, Harvard Dataverse. From https://www.electoralintegrityproject.com/peius2018
Savicki, D. (2020, September 21). The Road to 270: Texas. 270 To Win. From https://www.270towin.com/news/2020/09/21/the-road-270-texas_1100.html
Shelby County v. Holder. (n.d.). Oyez. Retrieved October 28, 2020, from https://www.oyez.org/cases/2012/12-96
Sullivan, A., Ax, J. (2020, September 9). Explainer: Despite Trump claims, voter fraud is extremely rare. Here is how U.S. states keep it that way. From https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-voter-fraud-facts-explai/explainer-despite-trump-claims-voter-fraud-is-extremely-rare-here-is-how-u-s-states-keep-it-that-way-idUSKBN2601HG
Tolan, Casey. (2020, October 22). States grapple with mask rules at polls to avoid dangers of both superspreaders and standoffs. From https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/22/politics/voting-mask-mandate-invs/index.html
Varol, O. O. (2015). pp. 1676 – 1718 (71 pages).
Villarreal, A. (2020, October 26). How Texas went from low voter turnout to nation’s top early voting state. The Guardian. from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/oct/26/us-election-texas-leading-country-early-voting.