Supreme Court ponders limits of Voting Rights Act enforcement
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday appeared ready to make it more difficult for voting rights advocates to prove that state election laws should be struck down as discriminatory.
In an oral argument centered on lawsuits over two Arizona election laws, the justices grappled with how to balance state laws with the anti-discrimination provisions in the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
A majority of the justices on the court’s conservative wing voiced concern about setting a legal test that could wipe out legitimate state election laws — ones that had the intent of limiting election fraud, for example — just because those laws affected racial minorities more.
There was no clear indication from the Supreme Court on where exactly they might draw that line, but it was clear from arguments that the justices were concerned about future challenges as much as the fate of Arizona’s laws.
Civil rights groups have warned that a decision that sets too high of a standard would “all but extinguish” the voting rights law and possibly would render the remaining key enforcement section “hopelessly ineffective” in combating new discriminatory election laws.
One of the laws at issue Tuesday was Arizona’s ban on ballot collection, a practice where voters give their completed absentee ballots to someone else to drop off.
The Democratic National Committee argues Arizona’s ban disproportionately affects Native Americans, rural Latinos and minorities in high-density urban housing units in the state, who face trouble with mail service. Arizona pointed to desires to prevent election fraud.
Conservative justices questioned whether that was enough to overcome a state’s interest in preventing election fraud, and pondered what it would take to prove a legislature enacted such a law with the intent of making it harder for certain populations to vote.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. pressed a report from a bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform in 2004 that said absentee ballots are the largest source of potential voter fraud.
“They said citizens who vote at home and nursing homes, at the workplace or church are more susceptible to pressure, or to intimidation, and that they recommended that the practice of allowing candidates or party workers to pick up and deliver absentee ballots should be eliminated,” Roberts said during oral argument.