Voting Rights Act Faces Renewed Challenge In Supreme Court

The Supreme Court will hear a major case on Tuesday that could determine the future of the landmark Voting Rights Act and affect how the provision is used to combat racial discrimination at the ballot box.

The case, Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, centers on two laws in Arizona: One limits who is allowed to collect absentee ballots; the other requires election officials to reject ballots cast in the wrong precinct.

The case comes eight years after the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 vote to gut the most powerful provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Section 5, which required states with a history of discrimination in voting to get federal approval before they changed how they held elections.

Since that decision, voting rights advocates have largely pointed to Section 2 of the act to fight efforts to disenfranchise voters. That provision mandates that no law can be imposed which “results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color,” but it has to be leveraged after a discriminatory law is passed rather than beforehand, like the legal challenges under Section 5.

Though the case on Tuesday focuses on the Arizona measures, the Supreme Court’s ruling could result in a much narrower view of Section 2 and limit how the act can be used to fight voter discrimination. The Guardian notes Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R) and the state’s Republican Party want the court to clarify how the provision can be used to determine if a law violates Section 2 and set a higher bar for legal challenges.

Unlike in 2013, the court is now in the hands of a firm 6-3 conservative majority, and recent decisions have worried some voting rights advocates and spurred fears that today’s court will be even more antagonistic to the Voting Rights Act.

Republicans have spent the months after Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 presidential election — which saw record turnout among voters of color — working to undercut many of the nation’s provisions meant to protect voters from discrimination. GOP lawmakers have unveiled more than 250 measures nationwide, many of which will make it harder to vote. Other laws are attempting to alter the Electoral College rules to Republicans’ benefit or outlaw private groups from funding efforts to smooth out election administration.

Many of those efforts are particularly robust in swing states that helped determine the outcome of the 2020 race.

The case comes in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s pernicious lies of rampant voter fraud in the 2020 race, which he lost by more than 7 million votes as well as losing handily in the Electoral College count. Republican leaders and Trump allies have continued to embrace those “stolen election” claims and said their efforts are meant to fight voter fraud, even after top cybersecurity officials deemed the November election “the most secure in American history.”

Despite repeated claims by Trump and his surrogates, even weeks after he left office, voter fraud is exceedingly rare. The New York Times reported many of the potential laws have little to do with fraud. One in Georgia would limit early voting on Sundays, when many of the state’s Black voters organize “souls to the polls” drives after church. And legislation in Iowa would limit when applications for polling places on college campuses — often Democratic strongholds — can be filed.

The COVID-19 pandemic made the election one like no other before. The Associated Press notes that almost 70% of ballots were cast before Election Day, and more than 108 million people voted by mail, early in-person or via absentee ballot as states expanded access to such services to help prevent Americans from spreading the virus.

A decision in Tuesday’s case is expected in the summer.

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