The United States Supreme Court has endorsed two Republican-backed ballot restrictions in Arizona that a lower court found had disproportionately burdened Black, Latino and Native American voters, handing a defeat to voting rights advocates and Democrats who had challenged the measures.
The 6-3 ruling on Thursday, with the court’s conservative justices in the majority, held that the restrictions on early ballot collection by third parties and where absentee ballots may be cast did not violate the Voting Rights Act, a landmark 1965 federal law that prohibits racial discrimination in voting.
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The court’s three liberal justices dissented from the decision.
The decision comes at a time when the US states are pursuing a series of Republican-backed voting restrictions in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread election fraud and irregularities in his 2020 loss to now-President Joe Biden.
The ruling represented a victory for the Arizona Republican Party and the state’s Republican attorney general, Mark Brnovich. They had appealed a lower court ruling that had deemed the restrictions unlawful.
The case involves a 2016 Arizona law that made it a crime to provide another person’s completed early ballot to election officials, with the exception of family members or caregivers. Community activists sometimes engage in ballot collection to facilitate voting and increase voter turnout. Ballot collection is legal in most states, with varying limitations. Republican critics call the practice “ballot harvesting”.
The other restriction at issue was a longstanding Arizona policy that discards ballots cast in-person at a precinct other than the one to which a voter has been assigned. In some places, voters’ precincts are not the closest ones to their homes.
The case raised questions over whether fraud must be documented in order to justify new curbs.
Democrats have accused Republicans at the state level of enacting voter-suppression measures to make it harder for racial minorities who tend to support Democratic candidates to cast ballots. Many Republicans have justified new restrictions as a means to reduce voter fraud, a phenomenon that election experts have said is rare in the US.
Republicans are seeking to regain control of the US Congress from the Democrats in the 2022 mid-term elections.
The Arizona legal battle concerned a specific provision called Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act that bans voting policies or practices that result in racial discrimination. Section 2 has been the main tool used to show that voting curbs discriminate against minorities since the Supreme Court in 2013 gutted another section of the statute that determined which states with a history of racial discrimination needed federal approval to change voting laws.
Arizona Republicans said in court papers that voting restrictions have partisan effects and impact elections. Invalidating the out-of-precinct policy would reduce Republican electoral prospects because it would increase Democratic turnout, they told the justices during March 2 arguments in the case.
The Republicans said the “race-neutral” regulations on the time, place or manner of an election do not deny anyone their right to vote and that federal law does not require protocols to maximise the participation of racial minorities.
The Democratic National Committee and the Arizona Democratic Party sued over the restrictions. Arizona’s Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has backed the challenge to the measures.
The San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals last year found Arizona’s restrictions violated the Voting Rights Act, though they remained in effect for the November 3 election in which Joe Biden, a Democrat, defeated Donald Trump, a Republican, in the state.
The 9th Circuit also found that “false, race-based claims of ballot collection fraud” were used to convince Arizona legislators to enact that restriction with discriminatory intent, violating the US Constitution’s prohibition on denying voting rights based on race.
US Senate Republicans on June 23 blocked Democratic-backed legislation that would broadly expand voting rights and establish uniform national voting standards to offset the wave of new Republican-led voting restrictions in states.
In a statement after the ruling was handed down, Biden said, “I am deeply disappointed in today’s decision by the United States Supreme Court that undercuts the Voting Rights Act, and upholds what Justice Kagan called ‘a significant race-based disparity in voting opportunities.'”
“Our democracy depends on an election system built on integrity and independence. The attack we are seeing today makes clearer than ever that additional laws are needed to safeguard that beating heart of our democracy,” he continued.
Biden has sharply criticised Republican-backed state voting restrictions. Biden called a measure signed by Georgia’s Republican governor in March “an atrocity” and likened it to racist “Jim Crow” laws enacted in southern states in the decades after the 1861-65 US Civil War to legalise racial segregation and disenfranchise Black people.
Campaign finance disclosure ruling
In a separate ruling, the court ruled in favor of two conservative groups that challenged a California requirement that tax-exempt charities provide the state the identities of their top financial donors in a decision that also could imperil some political donor disclosure laws.
The justices, in a 6-3 ruling, sided with the two nonprofit groups – the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, and the Thomas More Law Center, a conservative Catholic legal group – in finding that the California attorney general’s policy, in place for the past decade, violates the US Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and association.
The court’s six conservatives were in the majority, with its three liberal members dissenting.
Democratic-governed California, the most populous US state, has said the donor information is required as part of the state attorney general’s duty to prevent charitable fraud.
“We are left to conclude that the Attorney General’s disclosure requirement imposes a widespread burden on donors’ associational rights,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the ruling.
The state’s interest in “amassing sensitive information for its own convenience is weak,” Roberts added.
The decision could make it easier for groups to withhold donor identities in other contexts, allowing for the entrenchment of untraceable “dark money” political donations. The Supreme Court in the past has been hostile to political campaign finance restrictions – it ruled in 2010 that corporations and other outside groups could spend unlimited funds in elections – but has upheld disclosure requirements.
Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissenting opinion that the court has reversed its previous approach.
“Today’s analysis marks reporting and disclosure requirements with a bull’s-eye. Regulated entities who wish to avoid their obligations can do so by vaguely waving towards First Amendment ‘privacy concerns,'” Sotomayor wrote.