Supreme Court upholds Arizona voting restrictions

Washington — The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld two voting rules in the battleground state of Arizona, finding that the restrictions at issue in the case do not violate a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.

The decision from the high court, which split 6-3 along ideological lines, comes as a raft of Republican-led states weigh new measures to tighten their election rules in the wake of the 2020 presidential race, which former President Donald Trump falsely claimed was rife with widespread voter fraud. 

Justice Samuel Alito delivered the opinion of the court.

Already, the GOP governors of Georgia, Florida and Arizona have enacted new election measures, while state lawmakers in 47 states have introduced more than 360 bills that would limit voting rights, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Republicans argue the more stringent rules are needed to ensure the integrity of their elections, but Democrats warn the voting proposals would disproportionately harm minority voters, which tend to vote Democratic. 

At the federal level, Democrats in Congress have put forth legislation — one focused on election reforms and another on voting rights — designed to expand access to the ballot box.

The case before the Supreme Court concerned a pair of election rules that Democrats claimed violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race. The first, known as the “out-of-precinct” policy, discards ballots cast in the wrong precinct. The other rule, a ban on so-called “ballot harvesting,” limits who can return an absentee ballot for a voter and imposes criminal penalties on those who break the rule.

The two measures remained in place for the 2020 election, as their legality was considered by the courts. President Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Arizona since 1996.

Brought by Democrats in 2016, the dispute pitted state and national Republicans and Arizona against the Democratic National Committee. Arizona’s Secretary of State, Kate Hobbs, sided with Democrats in the case, while the Justice Department told the Supreme Court it does not believe the measures violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. However, the Biden administration said it “does not adhere to the framework for application of Section 2 in vote-denial cases set forth in the brief.”

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated the two rules, finding they disparately affected Black and Hispanic voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

The Supreme Court last decided a case involving the Voting Rights Act in 2013, when it gutted a key portion of the law that required jurisdictions with a history of race-based voter discrimination to receive federal approval before changing their voting procedures.

Voting rights groups feared a decision from the Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, would weaken Section 2, which became the main mechanism under which voting restrictions could be challenged after the 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder.