The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday made it easier Thursday for states to enact voting restrictions, endorsing Republican-backed measures in Arizona that a lower court had decided disproportionately burdened Black, Latino and Native American voters and handing a defeat to Democrats who had challenged the policies.
The 6-3 ruling, authored by conservative Justice Samuel Alito, held that the restrictions on early ballot collection by third parties and where ballots may be cast did not violate the Voting Rights Act, a landmark 1965 federal law that prohibits racial discrimination in voting.
President Joe Biden and other Democrats swiftly condemned the Arizona decision and a second one also issued by the justices on Thursday - the last day of rulings for the court's current nine-month term - in a case from California that could endanger some political donor disclosure laws. In both rulings, the court's six conservative justices were in the majority, with the three liberal justices dissenting.
Various states have enacted sweeping Republican-backed voting restrictions in the wake of former President Donald Trump's false claims of widespread election fraud in his 2020 loss to now-President Joe Biden.
"While this broad assault against voting rights is sadly not unprecedented, it is taking on new forms. It is no longer just about a fight over who gets to vote and making it easier for eligible voters to vote. It is about who gets to count the vote and whether your vote counts at all," Biden said.
The Arizona ruling makes it harder to prove violations of the Voting Rights Act. It could complicate a June 25 lawsuit by Biden's administration challenging new Republican-backed voting restrictions in Georgia under the Voting Rights Act. Georgia's law went so far as to ban the distribution of water or food to voters waiting in long lines.
The ruling clarified the limits of the Voting Rights Act and how courts may analyze claims of voting discrimination. The "mere fact there is some disparity in impact does not necessarily mean that a system is not equally open or that it does not give everyone an equal opportunity to vote," Alito said.
In a scathing dissent, liberal Justice Elena Kagan called the ruling "tragic," noting that crude efforts pursued by some states in the past to block voting access, such as "literacy tests" to prevent Black people from casting ballots, have given way to "ever-new forms of discrimination" since the court in 2013 gutted another part of the Voting Rights Act.
"So, the court decides this Voting Rights Act case at a perilous moment for the nation's commitment to equal citizenship. It decides this case in an era of voting-rights retrenchment - when too many states and localities are restricting access to voting in ways that will predictably deprive members of minority groups of equal access to the ballot box," Kagan wrote.
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 one to their home.
The decision came in an appeal by the Arizona Republican Party and the state's Republican attorney general, Mark Brnovich, of a ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that had deemed the two restrictions unlawful. The Democratic National Committee and the Arizona Democratic Party had sued over the restrictions.
"Today is a win for election integrity safeguards in Arizona and across the country," Brnovich said.
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 United States.
"One strong and entirely legitimate state interest is the prevention of fraud. Fraud can affect the outcome of a close election" and can undermine public confidence in elections, Alito wrote.
Arizona's ballot collection law was spurred by a widely shared video purportedly showing voter fraud that a judge later concluded showed no illegal activity at all.
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 struck down the part of the law that determined which states with a history of racial discrimination needed federal approval to change voting laws.
Biden said the ruling "makes clearer than ever that additional laws are needed to safeguard that beating heart of our democracy." U.S. 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 state voting restrictions.