The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld voting restrictions in Arizona in a decision that could make it harder to challenge other voting measures put in place by Republican lawmakers following last year’s elections.
The court, by a 6-3 vote, reversed a lower court ruling in deciding that Arizona’s limits on who can return early ballots for another person and its refusal to count ballots cast in the wrong precinct are not racially discriminatory.
The federal appeals court in San Francisco had held that the measures disproportionately affected Black, Hispanic and Native American voters in violation of the landmark Voting Rights Act.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote for a conservative majority that the state’s interest in the integrity of elections justified the measures.
The court rejected the idea that showing that a state law disproportionately affects minority voters is enough to prove a violation of the law.
In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the court was weakening the landmark voting rights law for the second time in eight years.
“What is tragic here is that the Court has (yet again) rewritten — in order to weaken — a statute that stands as a monument to America’s greatness, and protects against its basest impulses. What is tragic is that the Court has damaged a statute designed to bring about ‘the end of discrimination in voting.’ I respectfully dissent,” Kagan wrote, joined by the other two liberal justices.
Native Americans who have to travel long distances to put their ballots in the mail were more likely to be affected by the ballot collection law. Votes cast by Black and Hispanic voters were more likely to be tossed out because they were cast in the wrong precinct, the appeals court found.
But Alito said the measures were at most “modest burdens” that did not violate the law.
The challenged Arizona provisions remained in effect in 2020 because the case was still making its way through the courts.
President Joe Biden narrowly won Arizona last year, and since 2018, the state has elected two Democratic senators. Arizona’s most populous county, Maricopa, has been in the midst of a Republican-led audit of last year’s ballots.
The ruling comes eight years after the high court took away what had been the Justice Department’s most effective tool for combating discriminatory voting laws — a different provision of the voting rights law that required the federal government or a court to clear voting changes before they could take effect in Arizona and other states, mainly in the South, with a history of discrimination.
Many of the measures that have been enacted since then would never have been allowed to take effect if the advance clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act had remained in force.
Left in place was section 2 of the law, with its prohibition on rules that make it harder for minorities to exercise their right to vote. At the heart of the Arizona case was the standard for proving a violation of the law.
Alito cautioned that the court did not on Thursday “announce a test to govern all … claims involving rules, like those at issue here, that specify the time, place, or manner for casting ballots.”
Many Republicans continue to question the election’s outcome, despite the absence of evidence. Republican elected officials have responded by enacting restrictions on early voting and mailed-in ballots, as well as tougher voter identification laws.
Lawsuits challenging laws enacted in Florida and Georgia, including a Justice Department suit in Georgia last week, allege violations of the voting rights law.
Democratic elections lawyer Marc Elias vowed the legal fight against the new laws would continue, despite Thursday’s decision. “If anyone thinks that this decision will stop us from fighting for voting rights, they are wrong. We will fight harder with every tool available to protect voters from suppressive laws,” Elias wrote on Twitter.
Kagan pointed to some of the new laws in her dissenting opinion. “Those laws shorten the time polls are open, both on Election Day and before. They impose new prerequisites to voting by mail, and shorten the windows to apply for and return mail ballots. They make it harder to register to vote, and easier to purge voters from the rolls. Two laws even ban handing out food or water to voters standing in line,” she wrote.
The case is Brnovich, et al. v. Democratic National Committee, et al., 19-1257.