Texas’s Senate Bill 1 (SB1) recently came into effect, and with it come further restrictions on the already limited program of mail-in ballots. It was already true that the program may only be used by those over the age of 65, out of town, or disabled, and now there is an additional part of the application; the application must include the form of identification, either a partial Social Security number or driver’s license number, that was used in the voter’s original registration. An issue arises because for some prospective voters, their original registration took place up to decades ago. Despite that, forgetting which form they used leads to the rejection of their application, a penalty that has already been enforced on hundreds of requests.
Free and fair elections are a key characteristic of democracy, and while this step does not explicitly disenfranchise any group of people, it still has negative repercussions . Restricting voting with strict laws and requiring voter identification can discourage honest participation due to inconvenience or in this case, the rejection of valid applications. However, as their backers argue, ID laws can also prevent fraud. Preserving the integrity of elections is important to a democracy, and such laws could prevent false absentee ballots from being cast. Where is the line between decreasing voter participation and combating fraudulent votes and on which side of it does SB1 lie?
Voter participation is crucial to any functioning democracy; with high participation, then elected leaders truly have the backing of the people, not just a select group of voters. Thus, any action that decreases such participation can be dangerous, and it can be a sign of democratic erosion if it is pointed. A common tactic utilized by would-be autocrats is the manipulation of voter laws to decrease participation in a targeted manner . It can be very easily justified with the reasoning of preventing fraud and protecting stability while effectively stifling the opposition’s vote. This strategy of restricting participation strategically has been used to great effect across the world and in Texas itself. In Zimbabwe, President Mugabe required proof of residency to be shown to vote. This limited urban residents, a group that opposed him, as they often lived together or couldn’t afford the utility bills that serve as proof . In the late 19th century, Texas passed laws to legally prevent former slaves from voting (through poll taxes, literacy tests, etc.) so the former slaveowners could regain their stifling power. The aim of these laws is more clear, but any voter law should be judged to see if it disproportionately restricts a certain group of people. That often reveals an ulterior motive beyond the politician’s public justification.
In the case of Senate Bill 1, the restrictions continue to make it more difficult to vote via mail. The law is presented innocently as mail-in ballots can be sent in by any voter, but the composition of voters that participates in mail-in voting is certainly uneven in Texas. In the 2020 election, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to vote by mail across the state and especially in the largest counties. Given this, the law appears to be a calculated move by Republican lawmakers to decrease the opposition’s vote. For Democrats who are unable or unwilling to attend polls in person, a rejection of their mail-in application will effectively disenfranchise them. Meanwhile, as Republican voters continue to turn out in-person, the incumbent Republican politicians will be protected or even see their advantage grow. In a state that has seen a recent increase in Democrat voters and even threatened to turn blue at times leading up to the last election, these undemocratic measures will protect the power of current officials.
Of course, no competent politician would admit to such a motive. The justification behind the law is that it prevents fraud, which Republican politicians, especially Trump, have claimed to be rampant in mail-in votes. However, when examining this claim, it is clear that it does not hold up. Studies have repeatedly shown that mail-in ballots are already safe. They have low levels of fraud and increased usage of them has not changed that. There is no greater fraud risk connected with mail voting relative to in-person voting. Yet with access to these same studies, Republicans continue to point to mail ballots as a threat to election integrity. This is a strategic action to explain limiting the voting method that their opponents more commonly use in the state. This power-hungry undemocratic behavior is a mark of democratic erosion and the subsequent events will be important in determining the strength of Texas democracy as it faces this challenge.
In response to SB1, there have been lawsuits against the state of Texas by civil rights organizations and the US Department of Justice. The results of these suits could have long lasting effects. Throughout the history of Texas, laws restricting voting have been enabled, and if the courts take a stand against it here, it would set a new precedent. On the other hand, if the courts continue to support targeted voter restrictions, Texas could continue to backslide to disastrous effect. As Republicans gain more security in their positions from such laws, there is nothing to stop them from continuing to pursue democratic action whether that means further electoral manipulation or granting more power to their leader, Governor Abbott. Unfortunately for the DOJ’s suit that seeks to reverse current backsliding, the Supreme Court has a Republican majority. Given the current polarized political landscape, it seems unlikely that the justices will act against their party’s interests. There is hope, but it seems as though Texas’s democracy is eroding before our eyes as Governor Abbott and the Republican legislature seek to strengthen their grip on power. Dahl, Robert A. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971.  Ozan Varol, Stealth Authoritarianism. Iowa Law Review 100, no. 4 (May 2015)