The defining story of the 2020 election is, of course, Joe Biden’s apparent victory over Donald Trump. Though Democrats fell short of a once-in-a-generation landslide victory, they convinced a substantial majority of voters to reject an irredeemable racist. But voters across America, from reliably blue states in the Northeast to ruby-red bastions in the South, also came out in favor of multiracial democracy in more subtle ways—even as they sometimes backed candidates with less tolerant views.
In Alabama, roughly two-thirds of voters supported Amendment 4, which will rewrite the state’s constitution to excise racist and obsolete language. As a product of the Jim Crow era, Alabama’s 1901 Constitution includes a number of provisions that no longer carry legal force but remain on the books. Section 256, for example, says that “no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race.” Section 102 forbids the state legislature from passing laws that “authorize or legalize any marriage between any white person and a negro, or descendant of a negro.” Alabama won’t rewrite the constitution from whole cloth, but the state will now “recompile” it without the bigoted provisions.
Next door in Mississippi, voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of a new state flag to replace the one discarded by state lawmakers earlier this year. Mississippi’s previous state flag was the last in the Union to feature the Confederate battle emblem, a highly visible reminder of the state’s segregationist past. The new flag, which was designed by a commission chosen by state leaders that included tribal leaders, features a magnolia blossom (the state flower) as well as a five-point star that symbolizes the state’s indigenous communities. It sailed to victory with more than 70 percent of the vote. (Had it lost, the state would’ve simply chosen a new design instead of returning to the old one.)
In the Northeast, Rhode Island became the first state to change its name after joining the Union. Though the state is most commonly known as just “Rhode Island,” its full legal name was the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. The amendment removes “and Providence Plantations,” which state lawmakers viewed as too closely associated with slavery in the American cultural lexicon. Rhode Islanders previously considered changing the state’s name in a 2010 referendum but decided against it; the state legislature pushed this second attempt earlier this year after the death of George Floyd.
Utahns approved two constitutional amendments that also carried symbolic weight. Amendment A will revise the state’s constitution to replace terms like “husband” or “wife” or gendered pronouns with gender-neutral language. Amendment C tightens Utah’s state constitutional ban on slavery by forbidding it as a punishment for a crime. While the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude at the federal level in 1865, it included an exception “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” The proposed amendment from Utah lawmakers removes the exception from its similarly worded state-level ban. Voters in Nebraska also approved a similar anti-slavery amendment this week.
All of these measures are best described as symbolic, since they don’t change any substantive laws or policies within those states. But I don’t say that pejoratively. Symbolism proved to be a potent political issue during the Trump era, a marker of sorts for what kind of country Americans wanted to live in. In Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists rallied in defense of a Robert E. Lee statue on the University of Virginia campus as a totem for their fears of demographic change. The ensuing backlash led to the removal of Confederate statues and iconography across the country, despite the opposition of Trump and many other conservatives who resisted efforts to minimize racist symbolism in civic spaces.
But these symbolic changes were sometimes at odds with voters’ other decisions. The electorates in Alabama, Mississippi, and Utah chose to make a cosmetic break from their past even as they sought to return Donald Trump to the White House for a second term. To a pessimist, those divergent results may suggest that the amendments are a hollow gesture, and the votes for Trump are a reflection of their genuine sentiment. But an optimist might see the reverse: Even if Trump had prevailed, he would only be president for another four years. But voters overwhelmingly signaled their acceptance of a more inclusive vision of their country—a positive sign for how they may cast more consequential votes in the future.