The Platform


On September 7, 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed into law Senate Bill 1. Despite its intentionally mundane name, Senate Bill 1 represents a severe attack on the sanctity of America’s political system. The bill — which bans drive-thru voting, prohibits 24-hour voting, criminalizes local officials’ distribution of unsolicited mail-in-ballot applications, and imposes new voter ID requirements, among other measures — constituted yet another effort by Republicans to undermine American democracy.

By September, Republican lawmakers in 43 states had proposed more than 250 restrictive voting laws. The proposed voting laws followed a similar blueprint: the proposals implemented stricter ID policies, limited voting hours, and narrowed absentee voting eligibility — all of this under the guise of election security. Ratified discriminatory legislation like Senate Bill 1 has substantially reduced the ability of minority and low-income voters to cast ballots and holds immense implications for the health of our democracy. However, it highlights the shifting nature of racial discrimination and racial violence in our nation and will warrant strategic opposition for years to come.

Racial discrimination generally surfaces in two forms: overt and covert. Overt discrimination visibly manifests itself throughout society while covert discrimination is less visible. Anti-discrimination legislation primarily responds to overt discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 challenged Jim Crow laws and banned clearly visible discrimination. However, discrimination has since evolved and become more covert. Texas’ Senate Bill 1, for example, made no reference to race (nor do the election laws in Arizona or any other state), yet the law limits the ability of minority groups to vote. This demonstrates that anti-discrimination laws must evolve to block less overt forms of discrimination. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely amidst the intense politicization of voting rights.

The politicization of voting rights reflects the political atmosphere in the United States. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Republicans aroused their base with race-baiting dialogue and attempts to criminalize African Americans, but this came at a significant political cost. The ensuing mass mobilization of minority voters played a crucial role in the Democrats winning back the White House in 2020.

The promulgation of discriminatory voting laws is a response to 2020. To stand a chance at winning future elections, Republicans could adopt one of two strategies. They could disavow their response to America’s ongoing racial justice movement and take a moderate stance, one possibly at odds with ultra-right-wing facets of their base, or they could double down on their efforts to suppress minority voices. Throughout 2021, Republicans repeatedly made use of the latter strategy. Discriminatory voting laws, haphazardly veiled by illegitimate allegations of voter fraud, represent a Republican effort to suppress the minority vote and remain a relevant political party.

Discriminatory voting laws share parallels with past racial violence. We have only to look at America after the Civil War. At that time, our nation underwent an immense racial reckoning with the emancipation of enslaved Americans, but it remained unclear if new racial controls would replace slavery. Southern whites, uncertain of their future dominance, resorted to violence to preserve the traditional racial order. Such violence took many forms including public lynchings.

Between 1882 and 1940, hundreds of these killings occurred, usually in the Deep South. Public lynchings were brutal public mutilations and killings of Black Americans. Local newspapers celebrated such killings as a collective exercise of justice. Ultimately, such killings did not represent heavy-handed justice. Instead, they represented a socially accepted avenue by which white Southerners could release racial frustration and coerce the local Black population into submission. This violence constituted an effort by Southern whites to push Black Americans to the margins of society and to restore antebellum racial hierarchies.

Today’s discriminatory voting laws may seem a far cry from public lynchings, yet they share disconcertingly similar objectives. Following George Floyd’s death, racial oppression entered the national spotlight. Mass incarcerations, police brutality, and racial inequality faced widespread scrutiny and disapproval. The racial controls that had systematically disempowered Black Americans began to seem tenuous. In response, Southern Republicans, overwhelmingly white, have resorted to discriminatory voting laws as a means of preserving the traditional social and racial order. These laws represent Republicans’ attempts to subjugate Black Americans to an inferior social position. As such, these discriminatory laws must face a concerted and strategic opposition.

While public criticism can play an integral role in calling attention to discriminatory laws, the popular strategy of contesting these laws in court represents a precarious method of opposition. Challenges to discriminatory legislation forces proponents of such discrimination to develop a clear, legally viable argument for such laws. This, in turn, can result in the legal acceptance of discriminatory practices.

The most important legal challenge to discrimination of the past year, Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee represents a pointed example of the risks associated with contesting discrimination through the courts. Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee represented a years-long legal battle over two deleterious election policies: the mandate that people vote within their assigned precinct and the prohibition of third parties from collecting and delivering mail-in-ballots.

The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. On July 1, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed the election laws in compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1964. The Court’s ruling acknowledges the disparate impacts laws can have on different groups of people but permits this so long as formal legal equality is maintained. Ultimately, a well-intentioned legal challenge to Arizona’s election laws by the Democratic National Committee resulted in a ruling that effectively sanctions covert forms of discrimination.

In 2022, parties challenging discriminatory laws must consider the possible negative repercussions of their legal efforts. Furthermore, political groups like the Democratic National Committee risk politicizing fundamental American rights by spearheading opposition efforts. To truly address discrimination, bipartisan legislation must reach the president’s desk.

Ultimately, in 2020 and 2021, America entered a transformative age. Racial progress and reconciliation now seem closer than ever. Yet, change inevitably engenders reactionary movements, in this case, Republicans’ attempts to sway elections, penetrating the heart of American democracy. Despite intense opposition, discriminatory voting laws have found support in the courts. This is, in part, due to significant legal gaps that leave windows of opportunity for reactive discrimination. Therefore, combatting discrimination through rule changes that close these gaps has never been more important.

Graham Bateman is a high school junior at Buckingham Browne and Nichols School. Graham brings a breadth of knowledge and experience to his writing. Graham serves as the COO of Boston COVID-Tutoring, a national 501(c)3 based in Boston that provides free virtual tutoring to over 350 under-resourced students across the country. In his free time, Graham enjoys traveling and spending time with friends and family.