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US Supreme Court justices on Tuesday asked tough questions of lawyers arguing over the legality of two Republican-backed voting restrictions in Arizona in a case that could further weaken the Voting Rights Act, a landmark 1965 federal law that bars racial discrimination in voting.
The important voting rights case comes before the justices at a time when Republicans in numerous states are pursuing new restrictions after former President Donald Trump made false claims of widespread fraud in the November 3 election that he lost to Democratic President Joe Biden. Republican proponents of Arizona’s restrictions cite the need to combat voting fraud.
The justices heard arguments by teleconference in appeals by Arizona’s Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich and the state Republican Party of a lower court ruling that found that the voting restrictions at issue disproportionately burdened Black, Hispanic and Native American voters.
One of the measures made it a crime to provide another person’s completed early ballot to election officials, with the exception of family members or caregivers. The other disqualified ballots cast in-person at a precinct other than the one to which a voter has been assigned.
Community activists sometimes engage in ballot collection to facilitate voting and increase voter turnout. The practice, which critics call “ballot harvesting,” is legal in most states, with varying limitations. Voting rights advocates said voters sometimes inadvertently cast ballots at the wrong precinct, with the assigned polling place sometimes not the one closest to a voter’s home.
Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts pushed back on Michael Carvin, one of the lawyers defending Arizona’s measures, who said that it is not a state’s role to maximize the voting participation of minorities when considering a voting regulation.
“Is it maximizing participation or equalizing it? In other words, that only comes up when you have disparate results. And why should there be disparate results if you can avoid them?” Roberts asked.
Carvin defended the “valuable anti-fraud concerns implicated in ballot harvesting.”
Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that a lower court that previously ruled in the case “found no meaningful threat that ballot collection leads to fraud.”
A broad ruling by the high court, whose 6-3 conservative majority includes three justices appointed by Trump, endorsing the restrictions could impair the Voting Rights Act by making it harder to prove violations. Such a ruling could impact the 2022 mid-term elections in which Republicans are trying to regain control of the US House of Representatives and Senate from the Democrats.
A ruling is due by the end of June.
Liberal justices probed Carvin on the dividing line between what kinds of restrictions are acceptable and which ones are not. Carvin conceded to liberal Justice Elena Kagan that a rule that would require Black voters to travel to country clubs to vote would likely be unlawful. But Carvin indicated that restricting voting hours to the traditional business day would be lawful even if there was evidence that minority voters would face greater difficulties in voting.