The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Republican-backed voting restrictions in Arizona challenged by Democrats do not violate the federal Voting Rights Act. The decision could make it harder to challenge the recent surge in voting restrictions state legislatures passed in the wake of the 2020 election, voting rights advocates said.

The ruling centered on two Arizona laws, one that allows for ballots cast in the wrong precinct to be thrown out and another that bars third-party ballot collection except for by family members, caregivers, mail carriers and election officials. The ruling was decided 6-3, with the court’s conservative justices ruling in favor of the voting restrictions and the liberals voting against.

In the ruling, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the restrictions were “not enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose” and don’t exceed the “usual burden of voting.”

“The percentage of ballots invalidated under this policy was very small and decreasing,” Alito wrote of the out-of-precinct rule.

Although the percentages of Hispanic, African American, and Native American voters affected by the law was higher than non-minority voters, he wrote, a “procedure that appears to work for 98% or more of voters to whom it applies — minority and non-minority alike — is unlikely to render a system unequally open.”

The ruling overturns the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision but upholds the Arizona district court that also found the state’s voting restrictions were legal. The circuit court ruling was not enforced pending the Supreme Court’s decision and the restrictions were in place for the 2020 election.

In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the court overstepped its bounds by redefining Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which bans discriminatory voting procedures, rather than allowing Congress to define the law’s scope itself.

“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,” Kagan wrote. “Maybe some think that vote suppression is a relic of history — and so the need for a potent Section 2 has come and gone. But Congress gets to make that call.”

Supporters of President Donald Trump rally outside the Arizona Capitol on Nov. 7, 2020, in Phoenix. | Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press

The larger fight

The ruling doesn’t completely defang Section 2, but it is “going to make it much harder to use Section 2 to challenge racially discriminatory voting laws in court,” said Davin Rosborough, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project.

“Today, the Supreme Court today made it much harder to fight racial discrimination in voting by adopting a narrow view of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act that undermines the law’s purpose,” the ACLU tweeted.

The ruling comes amid a larger partisan fight over voting rights playing out across the nation and egged on by former President Donald Trump and others who falsely claim his reelection loss was a result of voter fraud. Trump’s own administration called the 2020 election the most secure in history, and last week, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was suspended from practicing law in the state of New York over “false and misleading factual statements to support his claim that the presidential election was stolen from his client.”

At the state level, lawmakers have been busy pushing their own restrictions. Between January and May, 22 restrictive voting laws passed in 14 states and a total of at least 389 restrictive voting bills have been introduced in state legislatures during the 2021 legislative session, according to the Brennan Center.

Bob Worsley, a former Republican state senator in Arizona who was in office when the state’s ballot collection bill was passed in 2016, said the party began passing restrictions as a response to lost elections.

“There’s just restriction after restriction, and it’s little here, little there, it’s just constant, constant effort by the Republican Party to make it harder to vote,” he said.

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Legislative battles continue

A controversial Republican-led audit of ballots cast in Maricopa County has turned Arizona into ground zero for attempts to reject 2020 election results. The audit was ordered following a hand recount of randomly selected precincts that found no discrepancies or evidence of election fraud. A June report from nonpartisan States United Democracy Center found the audit “does not meet the standards of a proper election recount or audit,” and Maricopa County announced Monday that it would not reuse voting equipment handled by uncertified outside contractors for the audit.

At the federal level, Democrats’ voting rights bill, the For The People Act, was blocked by Senate Republicans last week on a 50-50 party-line vote. The bill would have banned partisan gerrymandering, strengthened the Federal Election Commission’s ability to enforce campaign finance law, and made it easier to register to vote, with provisions like national online registration and same-day registration for federal elections.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the bill was “an effort for the federal government to take over the way we conduct elections,” while Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., accused Republicans of making voter suppression “part of the official platform” of their party.

In a statement Thursday, President Joe Biden said he was “disappointed” in the ruling and that democracy “is on the line.”

“(T)he Court has now done severe damage to two of the most important provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – a law that took years of struggle and strife to secure,” Biden said. “After all we have been through to deliver the promise of this Nation to all Americans, we should be fully enforcing voting rights laws, not weakening them.”

GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel celebrated the ruling, tweeting that it was “a resounding victory for election integrity and the rule of law.” Arizona state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Republican who’s sponsored multiple voting bills in the state, said the ruling will have implications for other states.

“This is a huge win for voters, not just in Arizona, but across the country,” she said. “It’s within the state’s purview to protect the integrity of our elections.”

During oral arguments for the case in March, Michael Carvin, an attorney for the Arizona Republican Party, said the 9th Circuit ruling “puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.”

“Politics is a zero-sum game,” Carvin said.

Jessica Ring Amunson, an attorney for Arizona’s Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, argued that Arizona’s voter restrictions violate the Voting Rights Act because they disenfranchise Native American and Hispanic voters and were unnecessary because there has been no evidence of fraud in ballot collection in the past 25 years.

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“A state must actually have record evidence that there is, in fact, the (voter fraud) danger that it is acting to prevent,” Amunson said. “Here, there was no such danger.”

But the majority opinion said the state doesn’t need evidence to exercise its interest in preventing voter fraud. “And it should go without saying that a State may take action to prevent election fraud without waiting for it to occur and be detected within its own borders,” Alito wrote.

Voting rights advocates are now calling on lawmakers to pass legislation to strengthen voting rights.

“Congress must act now to strengthen voting rights by passing the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act,” Sean Morales Doyle, Brennan Center deputy director of voting rights and elections, said in a statement.

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