WASHINGTON (AP) – The Supreme Court appeared ready Tuesday to maintain voting restrictions in Arizona in a key case that could make it difficult to challenge a host of other voting measures that Republicans have proposed after last year’s election.
The six conservative judges, appointed by Republican presidents, suggested they would reject an appeal ruling that overturned the restrictions as racially discriminatory under the historic Voting Rights Act. The three liberal members of the court, appointed by the Democrats, were more sympathetic to the contenders.
Less clear is what standard the court could set on how to prove discrimination under the law, first enacted in 1965.
The result could make it more difficult, if not impossible, to use the Voting Rights Act to sue for legislation that creates obstacles to voting in the name of electoral security. These measures are currently working their way through dozens of Republican-controlled state legislatures.
The civil rights group and Democrats argue that the proposed restrictions would disproportionately affect minority voters, major Democratic constituencies.
Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress have proposed national legislation that would remove those security-driven obstacles to voting.
Many of those proposals are fueled by former President Donald Trump’s repeated false claims about a stolen election, although state election officials and state and federal court judges found no evidence of major issues.
The Supreme Court case has strong partisan implications, with Arizona and national Republicans on one side, state and national Democrats on the other.
The Arizona provisions under review were in effect for last year’s vote. They are a 2016 law limiting who can return early ballots for someone else and a separate policy of discarding ballots cast at the wrong precinct.
Both parties used ballot collection in Arizona to increase turnout during elections by going door-to-door and asking voters if they had completed their mail-in ballots. Voters who had not done so were urged to do so, and volunteers volunteered to bring the ballots to the polls. Democrats used the process more effectively.
The Republicans who control the legislature committed a ballot-collecting crime, called ballot-collecting by opponents, other than for family members and caregivers. Eighty percent of the state’s voters use mail-in ballots or early voting in person.
The federal appeals court in San Francisco found that black, Hispanic and Native American voters were the most affected by the new law.
Both Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh pointed to the 2005 recommendation by a commission chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and the late James Baker to eliminate ballot collection, among other ideas to reduce the possibility of voter fraud. .
Kavanaugh said the recommendation appeared to be the kind of “circumstance that puts a thumb on the scale in favor of the rule’s legitimacy.”
Jessica Amunson, who represents Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs in opposition to the restrictions, said the court should not ignore the state’s experience with ballot collection.
“Arizona has a 25-year history of literally not a single case of ballot collection fraud,” Amunson said on behalf of Hobbs, a Democrat.
Judge Elena Kagan asked a series of questions that appeared to be directed at other restrictions that could hit the court, including reducing the time for early voting and eliminating polling places.
Michael Carvin, representing Republicans, said Kagan’s examples “have never existed in the real world.”
Kagan replied no “they seemed so outlandish to me.”
The last major Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act was in 2013, when a conservative 5-4 majority destroyed the part of the law that required state and local governments with a history of discrimination, including Arizona, to obtain prior approval from the Department of Justice or a federal court before making any election changes. Roberts wrote the court opinion.
The current case involves the remainder of the law that applies across the country and still prohibits discrimination in voting on the basis of race.
A decision is expected in early summer.
Associated Press journalist Bob Christie in Phoenix contributed to this report.