US supreme court could deal blow to provision protecting minority voters

Sam Levine in New York
·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The US supreme court will hear a case on Tuesday that could allow the court’s conservative majority to deal a major blow to the most powerful remaining provision of the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 law designed to prevent racial discrimination in voting.

The case, Brnovich v Democratic National Committee, involves a dispute over two Arizona measures. One is a 2016 law that bans anyone other than a close family member or caregiver from collecting absentee ballots, sometimes called ballot harvesting. The second is a measure that requires officials to reject ballots cast in the wrong precinct, even if the voter has cast a vote in statewide races.

Arizona rejected more than 38,335 ballots cast in the wrong precinct between 2008 and 2016 and minority voters were twice as likely than white voters to have their ballots rejected, the DNC noted in its brief. Minority voters, including the state’s Native American population, are disproportionately harmed by the ballot collection ban because they are more likely to lack reliable mail service.

The DNC argues that the policies violated section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting laws that discriminate based on race. A trial court ruled in 2018 that the policies did not violate the law, and a three-judge panel on the US court of appeals for the ninth circuit later upheld that ruling. But the full circuit voted to rehear the case and last year found that the policies did violate the Voting Rights Act. Now, Arizona attorney general Mark Brnovich, a Republican, and the Arizona Republican party are appealing that ruling to the US supreme court.

And though the facts in the case are about Arizona, the stakes could extend far beyond it. Brnovich and the Arizona Republican party are urging the court to use the case as a vehicle for announcing a narrower view of section 2 than the one currently in use.

Such a ruling would take away one of most powerful tools that voting rights groups have to challenge discriminatory voting laws. Section 2 was elevated after the supreme court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v Holder that struck down another Voting Rights Act provision requiring certain places with a history of voting discrimination, including Arizona, to submit voting laws to the federal government for pre-clearance before they went into effect.

“Without preclearance on the books, we’ve all had to rely more heavily on section 2 in order to address racial discrimination in voting,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice who helped author an amicus brief in the case in support of the DNC’s position. “If section 2 is limited, then we have even fewer tools.”

Losing the full power of section 2 would also make it harder for litigants, including the justice department, to challenge the wave of restrictive bills bubbling in Georgia and other state legislatures that would make it harder to vote, added Deuel Ross, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), which also filed an amicus brief in support of the DNC.

The case arrives at a supreme court where conservatives now have a powerful 6-3 majority that appears increasingly hostile to voting rights. It repeatedly refused to expand access to the ballot during the pandemic last year. And since its decision in Shelby County v Holder, the court has given the green light to aggressive voter purging and severe partisan gerrymandering.

Brnovich and the Arizona GOP want the supreme court to clarify the approach courts should take when they’re evaluating whether a law violates section 2. Brnovich is also asking the supreme court to set a high bar for minority voters and their lawyers to clear in order to prove that a law runs afoul of section 2. Generally, he argues that courts should use an approach for evaluating section 2 claims that would make it harder to challenge facially neutral measures, such as voter ID laws, that do not explicitly make it harder for a specific group to vote. And if minority voters are able to prove that a law has a “substantial disparate impact” on them, Brnovich argues, they should be required to show that disparity is directly connected to the voting policy.

But discriminatory voting laws often don’t work that way. There is a long history in the US of using policies that, taken in a vacuum, appear racially neutral because they apply to everyone, but are designed to interact with economic, social and other factors to make it harder to vote, LDF wrote in its amicus brief. Literacy tests and property requirements, the suppressive devices used in Jim Crow, applied to everyone, but made it harder for Black voters to register because of unequal education and economic factors, the group noted.

“You’re talking about two very specific voting laws that have a really obvious connection to the history of discrimination against indigenous, Black and Brown voters in this state,” said Allison Riggs, the interim executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which filed an amicus brief in support of the DNC’s position. “Poverty, lack of transportation, lack of access to flexible work and living wages is why out of precinct voting is important and why ballot collection, particularly on indigenous lands is so important. ”

One of the most interesting votes in the case will be that of Chief Justice John Roberts. When he authored the Shelby opinion in 2013, he specifically pointed to section 2 as one of the most powerful tools still in place to combat voting discrimination. But in 1982, then a young lawyer in the justice department, he strongly advocated against expanding section 2 and keeping it only limited to cases in which there was evidence of intentional discrimination. Roberts ultimately lost the argument.

Democrats argue in their brief that Arizona is proposing an “overly narrow” way of looking at section 2. The ninth circuit, Democrats say, appropriately analyzed the measures, finding that it disproportionately affected minority voters and worked in combination with social and historical conditions in Arizona to make it harder for those voters to cast a ballot.

Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, noted in a blog post last month that voting rights litigators have generally been hesitant about pushing section 2 claims too far. The Democratic party, he wrote, didn’t seem to have that concern in this case, opening up an opportunity for Republicans to narrow the law.

“Section 2 has done important work to rein in some of the worst forms of vote denial in recent years, and it would be a tremendous shame if this overreach of a case ends up serving as the vehicle to eviscerate what remains of the crown jewel of the civil rights movement,” he wrote in a post on SCOTUSBlog.

In December, Donald Trump’s justice department filed an amicus brief backing Brnovich and endorsing a narrower framework for interpreting section 2. But in February, the Biden administration filed a letter with the court abandoning that position. The justice department said it still believed the Arizona measures did not violate the Voting Rights Act, but no longer backed the framework for interpreting section 2 put forth by the Trump administration.

There are multiple ways the court could choose to rule in the case without weakening the scope of section 2. Morales-Doyle, the Brennan Center attorney, said he hoped the court recognized the climate around elections and race in which they were hearing the case.

“There’s a big picture narrative as to what’s going on with our democracy and race in American society. The court’s going to get to weigh in right now,” he said. “I think our hope is that the court instead sees it as an opportunity to reaffirm the values and the protections we have in place for our democracy.”