Perhaps it is hard for people to imagine the democratic American leaders they favor could have ulterior motives. Or perhaps Americans are so polarized that they are willing to overlook non-democratic actions so long as they benefit their partisan and ideological goals.  Regardless of peoples’ reasons for supporting undemocratic voting laws, if citizens don’t push back now, the U.S. may end up like Hungary–ruled by an autocratic leader and party unpopular with the majority of citizens.
Statistical analysis of voting trends for the 2020 presidential election demonstrates it was fair and free of systemic fraud. Nonetheless, since former President Trump lost to President Biden, as many as 25% of all Americans and 56% of Republicans mistakenly believe the election was fraudulent. Consequently, many Americans have bought into Republican politicians’ justifications for stricter voting laws. A poll conducted by Morning Consult in September 2021 found that 44% of U.S. adults believe voting laws aren’t strict enough to prevent fraud.
Politicians often justify restrictions on voter participation at the ballot box as necessary for truly fair and fraud-free elections. While these restrictions may not violate the letter of the law, they violate “institutional forbearance.”  Institutional forbearance is an exercise of self-control: politicians restrain themselves from pursuing opportunities for political gain which may be legal but which clearly violate the spirit of the Constitution.  Eschewing institutional forbearance is an indicator of “democratic erosion,” the process by which an aspiring autocrat (often with the help of their party) attacks and gradually eliminates democratic institutions, norms, and values to consolidate power. 
Comparing Texas’ recent restrictions on mail-in-voting to changes in electoral laws in Hungary in 2010 reveals that the U.S. is on a similar path. Americans must be wary: the Republican party in Texas continues to erode democracy at the ballot box. Their goal? Cement Republican party rule and return Trump to office.
In September of 2021, Republican Governor of Texas Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 1 (SB1), a law, he claimed, would make it “easier to vote and harder to cheat.” Among other provisions, SB1 criminalizes mail-in-ballots being sent to voters who did not request them, requires mail-in-ballots contain an ink signature that matches one on file, and contain the voter’s driver’s license, DPS‑issued personal ID, or social security number.
These restrictions are already changing voter participation. In February, over 40% of the mail-in-ballots cast for 2022’s first primary were sent back to voters as they lacked the required identification or signatures. Reducing the number of mail-in-ballots successfully cast and counted will likely benefit the Republican party. Studies indicate that mail-in-voters in Texas are more likely to be Democrats. By changing mail-in-voting laws, Texas Republicans are making it more difficult for Democrats to contest and win elections and for people of color to participate. SB1 is an example of the Texas Republican party ignoring institutional forbearance.
Aspiring autocrats prefer to win elections legitimately to maintain the veneer of democracy and not reveal their true autocratic intentions.  But they also don’t want to lose power. So aspiring autocrats will often put in place mechanisms to tilt the playing field in their favor, especially if they notice that they are losing support. Through incremental legal changes to voting laws, aspiring autocrats gradually and stealthily erode democracy, ensuring citizens cannot easily vote them out of office. 
For example, Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party rewrote the Constitution in 2010, specifically targeting electoral laws. The result? Even though Fidesz lost support in 2014 compared to 2010, their share of votes falling from 53% to 44.5%, they maintained their two-thirds majority in parliament.  Though technically all changes Fidesz and Orbán made to electoral laws were legal, they clearly violated the spirit of the law, allowing a party with waning support to maintain autocratic, single-party rule. As of 2021, The Freedom House rates Hungary as “partially free.”
It is difficult for citizens to differentiate the actions of genuinely concerned and well-meaning politicians from the actions of an aspiring autocrat or aspiring autocratic parties working to cement their power. Aspiring autocrats strategically confuse the general population and leave room for ambiguity in their actions.  If they were to work transparently to assume power, they would likely face immediate and significant opposition, foiling their attempts to consolidate power. 
The Texas Republican party’s motivation may seem transparent to some, but many Americans refuse to admit or even entertain the idea that restrictions on voting participation are evidence of democratic erosion. One reason for this cognitive dissonance is party polarization.  Democrats and Republicans are now more polarized than ever. The more polarized a society, the less citizens will push back against politicians who share their ideology and policy goals but act undemocratically.  Some Republicans may not care that their party is acting undemocratically as long as their policy goals are being advanced, but many are likely genuinely unaware that these voting restrictions constitute democratic erosion.
Often by the time citizens ‘make’ aspiring autocrats, it is too late to undo the damage to democracy.
Americans must acknowledge the similarities between Orbán and his Fidesz party changing electoral laws in Hungary and the Republican party changing electoral laws in the U.S.  As indicated by Governor Abbott’s rhetoric in speaking about SB1 (that it makes voting easier and fraud harder), Texas Republicans are using stealth authoritarianism to erode democracy in Texas. They are cementing power on the local and state levels through SB1 and tilting the playing field in their favor to maintain their political power and guarantee Trump’s reelection despite waning support. To overcome this attack, voters must recognize they are being misled and prioritize democracy over ideology.  Though Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, his party’s autocratic tendencies have only increased. Americans must resist now before it is too late. Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik, “Democracy in America?: Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States,” American Political Science Review, 2020.  Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018).  Nancy Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy (Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press 2016), 5-19. Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 100, no. 4 (May 2015), 1673-742.  Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 100, no. 4 (May 2015), 1673-742.
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