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Supreme Court Upholds Arizona Voting Restrictions

July 1, 2021 by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Thursday to uphold two provisions of Arizona’s election law that critics argued unfairly impinged on the rights of Black, Hispanic and Native Americans voters.

By a 6-3 margin, the justices held that a 2016 law that limits who can return early ballots for another person and a separate policy of discarding ballots cast in the wrong precinct do not violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

The division on the court was along strict ideological lines, with all of the conservatives in the majority, and the liberals banding together in dissent.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the opinion for the majority, but it’s Justice Elena Kagan’s much longer dissent that made for the most interesting reading Thursday.

Kagan wrote that the majority’s ruling “undermines Section 2 and the right it provides” because of what she described as the conservative justices’ “cramped reading” or “broad language” to justify upholding the restrictions.

The justice went on to say that the Voting Rights Act “represents the best of America” but added that “if a single statute reminds us of the worst of America” it is also the Voting Rights Act.

That is “because it was — and remains — so necessary,” she wrote.

The court’s decision could make it harder to challenge the score of voting restrictions that have been adopted or have been under consideration in GOP-led states since the 2020 election.

Thursday’s ruling reversed a 9th Circuit decision that struck down the restrictions as racially discriminatory.

Both Democrats and Republicans had used ballot collection in Arizona to boost turnout during elections by going door to door and asking voters if they had completed their mail-in ballots, but Democrats have historically been more successful at it.

The practice is considered particularly useful to the state’s Native American population because polling places can be far away and mail service isn’t always reliable.

Voters who hadn’t voted were urged to do so, and the volunteers offered to take the ballots to election offices. 

Republicans who control the legislature made a crime of ballot collection, dubbed ballot harvesting, other than for family members and caregivers. 

It is estimated that 80% of the state’s voters use mail-in ballots or vote early in person.

Thursday’s decision is yet another sign that a more conservative Supreme Court is comfortable with winnowing down the scope of the Voting Rights Act.

In 2013, the court invalidated the “preclearance” provision of the Voting Rights Act, which requireed states and local governments to clear voting rule changes with the federal government if they had a history of discrimination.

Six years later, in a case that affected voting rights if not the Act directly, it held that federal courts can’t weigh in on any case involving partisan gerrymandering.

Sean Morales-Doyle, acting director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, said in a statement that the Supreme Court on Thursday “made it much harder to challenge discriminatory voting laws in court. 

“The justices stopped short of eviscerating the Voting Rights Act, but nevertheless did significant damage to this vital civil rights law and to the freedom to vote. Congress must act now to strengthen voting rights by passing the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act,” he added.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder said the Supreme Court’s decision “sends a clear message to voters across the country: We will not protect your sacred right to vote. 

“The laws at issue in [the case] are part of a larger, coordinated assault on our democracy being carried out in the name of ‘election security,’ that is based on the decades-long lie of widespread election fraud,” he said. 

“The impact of this activist, ideologically-driven decision will be felt in the future and far outside the borders of Arizona. These laws, and others like them, are unnecessary, and they will result in the effective disenfranchisement of countless American citizens – especially people of color,” he added.

Holder, who is now chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, went on to say, “Tellingly, this decision shows once again that this Court has little interest in protecting voting rights, and it makes the responsibility that is constitutionally supposed to be Congress’ all the more urgent. 

“We are getting by with an electoral system on life support — Congress must take immediate action to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to help mitigate the damage done in this case and in the disastrous Shelby County decision of 2013,” he said.

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