Washington – Supreme Court It looked ready Tuesday to support two electoral restrictions in Arizona and make it difficult to challenge all kinds of restrictions to voting across the country.
In the most significant voting rights issue in nearly a decade, the court first considered how a crucial portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 applies to voting restrictions that have a disproportionate effect on members of minority groups. The court heard the case as disputes over voting rights became once again a flashpoint in American politics.
The immediate question for judges was whether two actions in Arizona were inconsistent with the 1965 law. One action required election officials to ignore ballots cast in the wrong district. The other criminalizes campaign workers, community activists, and most others collecting ballot papers for delivery to polling places, a practice that critics call “ballot harvesting.”
Several members of the court’s conservative majority argued that the restrictions were reasonable, common, and at least partially ratified by a bipartisan consensus reflected in a 2005 report signed by former President Jimmy Carter and James Baker III, who served as Secretary of State under President George Push.
The Biden administration also told the judges in Unusual speech Two weeks ago, Arizona’s proceedings appeared legal. But the message was denied The position of the Trump administration That the relevant section of the Voting Rights Act should not be used widely to prevent states from enacting more restrictive voting procedures.
Much of the debate on Tuesday centered on that larger issue of the case, Bernovi v. Democratic National CommitteeNo. 19-1257, from What criteria should courts apply to appeals under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act? The court’s answer to this question could determine the fate of dozens if not hundreds of laws dealing with election rules in the coming years.
Like the state legislatures that are increasingly controlled by the Republicans It seeks to impose new, restrictive voting rulesDemocrats and civil rights groups use the courts to argue that Republicans are trying to suppress the vote, thwart the will of the majority, and deny minority voters and others who are underrepresented in the election.
Bruce F. Spiva, attorney for the Democratic National Committee, which is challenging the Arizona procedures, told judges: “More voting restrictions have been enacted over the past decade than at any time since the end of Jim Crow.” “The past three months have seen a further increase in the proposed voting restrictions, with many of them directly targeting minority groups that Congress was aiming to protect from their participation.”
Although the Voting Rights Act seeks to protect the voting rights of minorities, litigation under it tends to proceed on party grounds. When Judge Amy Connie Barrett asked an Arizona Republican attorney why his client was concerned about whether votes cast in the wrong circuit should be counted, he provided a straightforward answer.
Attorney Michael A. Carvin: “Because that puts us at a competitive disadvantage for the Democrats.” “Politics is a zero-sum game, and every extra vote they get through illegal interpretations of Section 2 hurts us.”
Jessica R. Amonson, attorney for Katie Hobbs, Arizona State Secretary, who is a Democrat, said election contests should not be converted into voting procedures.
“Candidates and parties should try to win over voters on the basis of their ideas, and not try to alienate voters from the electorate by imposing unjustified discriminatory burdens,” said Ms. Amonson.
Section 2 effectively gained additional importance after the Supreme Court in 2013 Beating the heart of the Voting Rights ActSection 5, which requires prior federal approval of changes to voting procedures in parts of the country that have a history of racial and other forms of discrimination.
Until then, Section 2, which allows for post-factual appeals, was mostly used in redistricting situations, where the question was whether voting maps had unlawfully weakened the minority voting power. Its role in addressing voting deprivation has been presented with much less interest.
Over the course of two hours of telephone arguments, judges struggled to define a standard that would allow courts to distinguish between statutory restrictions and inappropriate restrictions.
The court did not appear receptive to a strict test proposed by Mr. Carvin, an Arizona Republican attorney, who said that regular election regulations are not subject to appeals under Section 2. Most justices appear to accept regulations that place significant burdens on minority voters that may conflict with the law.
But there has been some disagreement over what is considered material and what justifications states can provide for their restrictions. The more conservative members of the court appear to be inclined to claim large inequalities unrelated to socioeconomic circumstances and to accept the need to combat potential election fraud as a sufficient reason to impose restrictions on voting.
Judge Elena Cagan tested the limits of Mr. Carvin’s argument, asking whether long queues at polling stations in minority neighborhoods could be challenged by law. He said yes. He gave the same answer when asked about locating all polling stations in country clubs far from minority neighborhoods.
But he said curtailing voting on Sunday, even if it was heavily relied upon by black voters, was legal, as was the restriction of voting to working hours on Election Day.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Bernowitz, a Republican, suggested a more ambiguous criterion, saying that the disparate influence on minority voters should be substantial and result from the objected practice rather than another factor.
In response to a question from Judge Cagan whether the four hypothetical restrictions she imposed on Mr. Carvin would succeed under this test, Mr. Bernovic did not give a direct answer.
He said that the number of votes that were disqualified for being cast in the wrong district was very small and that Arizona’s public election system makes it easier to vote.
Ms. Amonson, attorney for the Arizona State Secretary, urged judges to remove contested restrictions.
For example, she said, “Arizona already has a law prohibiting the collection of fraudulent ballot papers.” “What this law does is it criminalizes neighbors who help neighbors hand out ballot papers with up to two years in prison.”
Judge Samuel A. asked her. Alito Junior series of hypothetical questions about early voting, polling forms, and mailing ballot deadlines. Mrs. Amonson gave a general answer.
She said, “You have to take a functional view of the political process and look at a comprehensive view of how it actually affects the voter on the ground.”
Judge Alito seemed dissatisfied. “Well, that’s a lot of words,” he said. “I really don’t understand what they mean.”
Several justices suggested that most of the criteria the attorneys proposed before them were quite similar. Judge Kagan said, “The longer this argument lasts, the less clarity is regarding how the standards of the parties differ.”
Judge Stephen J. Breyer echoed this point. He said, “A lot of the parties on both sides are very close to the standards.”
Judges Cagan and Breyer, both members of the court’s liberal wing, may have been playing the defense, hoping that the court’s decision, expected by July, would leave Section 2 more or less unscathed.
But Judge Alito said he was wary of making “every voting base vulnerable to attack under Section 2.”
“Poor and less well-educated people are likely to find it more difficult to comply with nearly every voting rule compared to the wealthiest people who have benefited from more education,” he said.
Judge Barrett appears to agree. She said, “All the election rules will make it easier for some to vote than others.”
But Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh said he could consider two applicable law enforcement standards. He said, “One of the factors is that if you change to a new rule it puts minorities in a worse position than they were under the old rule, and the second factor is whether the rule is common in other countries that do not have a similar history of racial discrimination.”
Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, Ruling that both Arizona restrictions violated Section 2 Because they disproportionately denied minority voters.