WASHINGTON (AP) – Eight years after carving the heart of a historic voting rights law, the Supreme Court is considering putting new limits on efforts to combat racial discrimination in voting.
Justices are taking a case over Arizona’s restrictions on ballot collection and another policy that penalizes voters who vote in the wrong precinct.
High court consideration occurs when Republican officials in the state and across the country They have proposed more than 150 measures, following last year’s elections, to restrict voting access that civil rights groups say would disproportionately affect black and Hispanic voters.
A sweeping Supreme Court ruling would make it difficult to fight those efforts in court. Discussions are scheduled for Tuesday by phone, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It would be taking away one of the great tools, in fact, the main tool that we have left now, to protect voters against racial discrimination,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice. .
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican, said the superior court case is about ballot integrity, not discrimination. “It’s about protecting the franchise, not disenfranchising anyone,” said Brnovich, who will discuss the case Tuesday.
President Joe Biden narrowly won in Arizona last year and, since 2018, the state has elected two Democratic senators.
The judges will review an appeals court ruling against a 2016 Arizona law limiting who can return early ballots for someone else and against a separate state policy of discarding ballots if a voter goes to the wrong district.
The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the ballot collection law and state policy discriminate against minority voters in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act and that the law also violates the Constitution.
The Voting Rights Act, first enacted in 1965, was extremely effective against discrimination at the polls because it forced state and local governments, with a history of discrimination, including Arizona, to obtain prior approval from the Department of Justice or from a federal court before making decisions. any change in the elections.
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the part of the law known as Section 5 could no longer be enforced because the population formula for determining which states were covered had not been updated to account for racial progress.
Congress “must identify the jurisdictions to be selected on a basis that makes sense in light of current conditions,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in favor of a conservative majority. “It cannot simply depend on the past.”
Democrats in Congress will again try to revive the early approval provision of the voting rights law. John Lewis’s Voting Rights Promotion Act failed in the last Congress, when Republicans controlled the Senate and President Donald Trump was in the White House.
But another part of the law, Section 2, applies across the country and still prohibits discrimination in voting on the basis of race. Civil rights groups and voters who allege racial bias have to go to court and prove their case, either by showing intentional discrimination when passing a law or that the results of the law fall more heavily on minorities.
The new Supreme Court case is primarily concerned with how plaintiffs can prove discrimination based on the results of the law.
The arguments take place in the context of the 2020 elections, in which there was a massive increase in early voting and mail-in ballots due to the pandemic. Trump and his Republican supporters challenged the election results by filing allegations of fraud that were widely rejected by state and federal courts.
But many Republicans continue to question the outcome of the election, despite the absence of evidence. Republican elected officials have responded by proposing to restrict early voting and mail-in ballots, as well as toughen voter identification laws.
The challenged Arizona provisions remained in effect in 2020 because the case was still making its way through the courts.
But Brnovich said last year’s vote is another reason justices should side with the state. “I think part of the lesson of 2020 was that when people do not believe that elections have integrity or that their vote is protected, it will undermine public confidence in the system,” Brnovich said.
Civil rights groups said the court should not use this case to make it difficult to eradicate racial discrimination, which “still represents a unique threat to our democracy,” as the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund put it in a short summary.
Almost 75 companies, including PayPal, Levi Strauss and Impossible Foods, joined in a report to urge the court to “fully preserve the Voting Rights Act.”
The Justice Department will not be part of Tuesday’s arguments, a rarity in a voting rights case.
The Trump administration backed Arizona. The Biden administration, in a somewhat cryptic letter to the court, said this month that it believes that “none of Arizona’s measures violate the Section 2 results test,” but does not like the way its predecessor analyzed the results. problems.
The new administration’s suggestion could give the court a narrow path to uphold the Arizona provisions without making significant changes to the voting discrimination law.
A decision is expected in early summer.