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 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 nonminorities, 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 former dean of Harvard Law School 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 case was decided as Republican-led legislatures across the country weigh new voting measures that would tighten election rules in future contests. The wave of new bills was inspired by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was tainted by widespread voter fraud.
The decision marks the first time that the court has considered how Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act applies to state laws that govern ballot collection and counting. In the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, the top court weakened a separate provision of the law, which had mandated that localities with histories of discrimination receive federal clearance for new voting measures.
President Joe Biden‘s Department of Justice has pledged to increase its focus on voting rights as a result of the Shelby County decision, as well as the new election bills. Last month, Attorney General Merrick Garland said he was doubling his staff dedicated to voting rights enforcement.
Voting rights advocates said Thursday that the court’s decision could make that task more difficult.
In a statement issued after the court’s decision was released, American Civil Liberties Union voting rights attorney Davin Rosborough said “the court’s narrowing of Section 2 is especially disturbing given its importance in combating voter suppression laws that disproportionately harm communities of color.”
“The court’s decision adopts a standard for proving violations of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act that is unduly cramped and at odds with the law’s intent of eradicating all voting practices that are racially discriminatory in their effects on voting opportunity, whether blunt or subtle,” he said.
Meanwhile, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican who defended the state’s measures, cheered the court’s decision.
“Today is a win for election integrity safeguards in Arizona and across the country. 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,” he said.
The cases are formally known as Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, No. 19–1257 and Arizona Republican Party v. DNC, No. 19–1258.