Supreme Court ruling shocks voting rights activists, academics
Political scientists and voting rights advocates reacted with horror on Thursday after the Supreme Court upheld two Republican-backed voting restrictions in Arizona, the latest in a series of blows the high court has dealt to the 1965 Voting Rights Act under Chief Justice John Roberts.
One of the Arizona provisions allowed election officials to discard provisional ballots cast if a voter showed up at the wrong precinct. Another barred so-called ballot harvesting, when third-party groups collect and deliver absentee ballots.
In a 6-3 decision divided along ideological lines, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that a lower court had erred by blocking the measures under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
Voting rights advocates warned that Thursday’s decision substantially weakens that section of the landmark law. They said it would usher in a new era of measures aimed specifically at suppressing or rejecting minority voters.
“Today’s decision is an affront to voters of color and underscores the urgent need for federal action to protect the freedom to vote,” said former Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams (D), who now runs the voting rights group Fair Fight Action. “The erosion of our democracy is gaining speed, and without minimum national voting standards, we will all be the victims of its demise.”
Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California-Irvine, said the decision was of a piece with earlier decisions upholding Indiana’s voter identification law, in 2008, and ending the requirement that the Justice Department sign off on proposed election administration changes in areas that have historically used voting rules to discriminate, in 2013.
“The conservative Supreme Court has taken away all the major available tools for going after voting restrictions. This at a time when some Republican states are passing new restrictive voting law[s],” he wrote on his Election Law Blog. “This is not a death blow for Section 2 claims, but it will make it much, much harder for such challenges to succeed.”
Some voting rights advocates saw the decision in urgent terms. Writing in dissent, Justice Elena Kagan called the Voting Rights Act a “monument to America’s greatness.”
“What is tragic is that the Court has damaged a statute designed to bring about ‘the end of discrimination in voting,’” Kagan wrote for the three liberal members of the court.
Lee Drutman, a political scientist at New America, a Washington think tank, compared the decision to the collapse of a South Florida condominium where recovery efforts are still underway.
“I can’t stop thinking about the Champlain Towers collapse as a metaphor for American democracy. There’s only so much you can let the foundations weaken before the whole thing pancakes. Political scientists keep sounding the warning signs. And yet,” he wrote on Twitter.
President Biden said he was “deeply disappointed” in the decision. Jaime Harrison, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which had sued over the two Arizona laws, rebutted Alito’s claim that the state rules did not have a suppressive effect on minority voters.
“This ruling is exactly why we urgently need to take action at the state and federal levels to protect voters from Republicans’ unprecedented efforts to undermine the right to vote,” Harrison said in a statement.
Some voting rights experts used the decision to renew calls for the Democratic-controlled Senate to end the legislative filibuster, and to act on House-passed bills that would establish national voting standards.
“We need new legislation NOW to protect the right to vote. No Senate rule should stand in the way of the right of Black voters to participate as full citizens in [the] political process,” wrote Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, on Twitter.
Republican officials and party leaders celebrated the decision as a victory for election integrity. Twenty Republican attorneys general signed onto a friend of the court brief circulated by Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost (R) urging the Supreme Court to uphold the rules.
“Today is a win for election integrity safeguards in Arizona and across the country,” Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R), who was named as the lead plaintiff in Brnovich v. DNC, said in a statement. “Fair elections are the cornerstone of our republic and they start with rational laws that protect both the right to vote and the accuracy of the results.”
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel called the decision a “resounding victory for election integrity and the rule of law.”
The Supreme Court’s decision may affect one of the most significant legal battles over voting rights pending before the courts: the Justice Department’s challenge to a new omnibus voting rights overhaul passed in Georgia earlier this year.
Many liberal legal experts said the high court’s decision did not represent a wholesale ouster of the Voting Rights Act’s Section 2 provisions; instead, the court ruled those provisions did not apply to the Arizona laws.
But, wrote Hasen: “The Court today also makes it harder to prove intentional racial discrimination in passing a voting rule, making it that much harder for [the Justice Department] to win in its suit against the new Georgia voting law.”