Supreme Court Hears Cases That Could Be Crucial in Setting a Precedent for Voting Laws


Patrick Tolan

On Tuesday March 7, the Supreme Court heard two cases challenging Arizona voting rules: Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee and Arizona Republican Party v. Democratic National Committee. These cases challenge two rules: one requiring ballots to be thrown away if cast at the wrong precinct and another banning third parties from collecting ballots. After hearing these cases, the Court’s conservative majority appears to be ready to uphold these rules.

The issue at hand was whether these policies violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, banning racial discrimination in voting. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down both voting rules, applying a two-part test known as the “results test”. This test first asks if the policy disproportionally affects the ability of a racial minority to vote, and if it does, the test then asks if there is a connection between the policy and social/historical conditions creating this inequality. The Ninth Circuit found both a discriminatory impact and intent in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Michael Carvin, a lawyer representing the Arizona Republican Party, stressed that Arizona has not denied anyone the right to vote.

The Court appeared skeptical of invalidating these policies. When asked by Justice Clarence Thomas what percentage of minority ballots was affected, attorney Jessica Amunson, who represented Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s Secretary of State who declined to defend the provisions, responded that less than one percent of minority voters were affected. Justice Amy Coney Barrett then suggested that the effect on voters may be due to the precinct system rather than these policies. The Biden administration also suggested that these restrictions appear lawful.

Though this case may appear to have a small footprint, the standard the Court uses to evaluate Voting Rights Act challenges could affect hundreds of voting laws. With Republican state legislatures continuing to adopt stricter voting rules, many are concerned that these restrictions are designed to disproportionately disenfranchise minority groups. This sentiment was reaffirmed when Justice Barrett asked Michael Carvin, a lawyer for the Arizona Republican Party, why it mattered to his client that these votes not be counted. “Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats,” Carvin responded.

Soon after this hearing, Georgia passed extensive changes to voting laws, such as strict identification requirements, limits on time for absentee ballot requests, expansion of voting abilities in rural areas and decreases in urban and suburban areas, and misdemeanor charges for offering food or water to voters waiting in line at their polling place. These changes, presumed to favor Republicans, decrease the opportunities for citizens to vote and make efforts to increase voter turnout more difficult. Though not directly related to the Arizona cases before the Court, it is possible that decisions in favor of the Republicans may be used to justify future sweeping changes to voting rules.

Though the Court appeared ready to reverse the Ninth Circuit’s decision, the future of these cases and the scope of its decision are largely unknown.

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