The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled 6-3 along partisan lines to uphold Arizona voting rules supported by Republicans that Democrats alleged unlawfully discriminated against the state's Native American, Hispanic and Black voters.
The case concerned two Arizona voting rules that a federal appeals court found to be in violation of the Voting Rights Act, citing their disproportionate impact on minorities. In an opinion for the court's majority, Justice Samuel Alito said that neither rule violated the civil rights law.
One of the measures, known as the “out-of-precinct policy,” disqualifies ballots cast in the wrong precinct on Election Day. The other measure, known as the “ballot-collection law,” forbids most people except for family members to collect and deliver ballots to the polls. Republicans often refer to third-party ballot collection as ballot harvesting.
The Democratic National Committee challenged the two measures under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires elections to be equally open to people of all races. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the DNC.
The full appeals court said in a ruling last year that the out-of-precinct policy had a discriminatory impact on Native American, Hispanic, and Black voters in Arizona. With regard to the ballot-collection law, the court said that the circumstances “cumulatively and unmistakably revealed” that racial bias was responsible for its enactment.
Alito was joined in the majority by the five other justices appointed by Republican presidents: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. The court's three Democratic appointees, Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, dissented.
Alito wrote that neither law had a large effect on the openness of elections to all voters. Under Arizona law, he wrote, it was generally “very easy to vote.”
“Having to identify one's own polling place and then travel there to vote does not exceed the ‘usual burdens of voting,'” Alito wrote. He added that the alleged disparate impact on minority voters was “small in absolute terms.”
A lower court found that about 1% of ballots cast by Native American, Hispanic and Black voters were entered in the wrong precinct on Election Day. For non-minorities, the rate was about half that.
“A policy 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,” Alito wrote.
On the ballot collection measure, Alito said that Democrats failed to show that the law had a disparate impact at all. Even if the law did have such an impact, he wrote, that would not be enough to make the law invalid under the Voting Rights Act, given the state's interest in setting its election rules.
Alito quoted from the 2006 case Purcell v. Gonzalez, in which the court reasoned that “A State indisputably has a compelling interest in preserving the integrity of its election process.”
“Limiting the classes of persons who may handle early ballots to those less likely to have ulterior motives deters potential fraud and improves voter confidence,” Alito wrote.
In a dissent joined by Breyer and Sotomayor, Kagan called the majority decision a tragedy.
“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. “What is tragic is that the Court has damaged a statute designed to bring about ‘the end of discrimination in voting.'”
The appointee of former President Barack Obama took issue with Alito's framing of Arizona's rules as posing little inconvenience to minority voters.
“And what is a ‘mere inconvenience' or ‘usual burden' anyway? The drafters of the Voting Rights Act understood that ‘social and historical conditions,' including disparities in education, wealth, and employment, often affect opportunities to vote,” Kagan wrote.
“What does not prevent one citizen from casting a vote might prevent another,” she added.
The cases are formally known as Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, No. 19–1257 and Arizona Republican Party v. DNC, No. 19–1258.
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