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Supreme Court upholds Arizona voting restrictions in 6-3 ruling

Supreme Court upholds Arizona’s voting laws
Supreme Court upholds Arizona’s voting laws... 02:13

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, writing that the state's justifications for the rules, to preserve the integrity of its elections, sufficed to avoid violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

The Supreme Court's decision also outlined several factors to be considered when weighing future challenges under the Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which place new limits on the provision and could make legal challenges to new election laws enacted by states more difficult.

Preventing voter fraud, for example, is a "strong and entirely legitimate state interest," Alito wrote.

"Fraud can affect the outcome of a close election, and fraudulent votes dilute the right of citizens to cast ballots that carry appropriate weight. Fraud can also undermine public confidence in the fairness of elections and the perceived legitimacy of the announced outcome," he said. "Ensuring that every vote is cast freely, without intimidation or undue influence, is also a valid and important state interest."

Writing for the three liberal justices, Justice Elena Kagan lambasted the decision from the court's six conservative members, warning it "undermines Section 2 and the right it provides."

"What is tragic here is that the Court has (yet again) rewritten — in order to weaken — a statute that stands as a monument to America's greatness, and protects against its basest impulses," she wrote in a dissenting opinion. "What is tragic is that the Court has damaged a statute designed to bring about 'the end of discrimination in voting.'"

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. While a sweeping election reform bill was blocked by Republicans in the Senate last month, the Biden administration and Democrats are hopeful legislation restoring another part of the Voting Rights Act that was dismantled by the high court in an earlier case will win approval by Congress. 

The decision by the Supreme Court in the Arizona dispute is now amplifying calls for Congress to pass legislation protecting voting rights.

"The court's decision, harmful as it is, does not limit Congress' ability to repair the damage done today: it puts the burden back on Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act to its intended strength," President Biden said in a statement following the decision.

The president said he is "deeply disappointed" in the Supreme Court's ruling and noted it comes in the wake of the Senate's failure to advance the elections reform bill, know as the For the People Act.

"In a span of just eight years, the court has now done severe damage to two of the most important provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — a law that took years of struggle and strife to secure," Mr. Biden said. "After all we have been through to deliver the promise of this Nation to all Americans, we should be fully enforcing voting rights laws, not weakening them."

Supreme Court upholds Arizona voting laws 10:43

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. Mr. 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.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who argued before the justices in favor of the rules, cheered the decision by the Supreme Court, calling it a "win for election integrity safeguards."

"Fair elections are the cornerstone of our republic, and they start with rational laws that protect both the right to vote and the accuracy of the results," he said in a statement.

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.

In her dissent, Kagan outlined the ramifications of the Supreme Court's decision in the Shelby County case, writing it ushered in "a further generation" of voter suppression laws, including the most recent laws enacted in GOP-led states.

"So the court decides this Voting Rights Act case at a perilous moment for the nation's commitment to equal citizenship," she said. "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 went on to criticize the court for remaking Section 2 with its decision, and said Congress has the authority to decide whether there is no longer a need for the measure.

"Because it has not done so, this court's duty is to apply the law as it is written. The law that confronted one of this country's most enduring wrongs; pledged to give every American, of every race, an equal chance to participate in our democracy; and now stands as the crucial tool to achieve that goal," she continued. "That law, of all laws, deserves the sweep and power Congress gave it. That law, of all laws, should not be diminished by this court."

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