Supreme Court sides with Arizona on voting restrictions

The decision could make it harder for activists to challenge election-law changes Republicans are implementing across the country. 

Voters stand in line outside a polling station on Nov. 3, 2020, in Mesa, Ariz.

Voters stand in line outside a polling station on Nov. 3, 2020, in Mesa, Ariz. | Matt York/AP Photo


07/01/2021 10:22 AM EDT

Updated: 07/01/2021 11:26 AM EDT

The Supreme Court on Thursday further reined in the impact of the Voting Rights Act, taking a narrow view of when state voting practices can be ruled to violate the rights of minorities.

In a pair of high-profile cases from Arizona, the justices split 6-3 along ideological lines, with the majority concluding that disparate impacts on minority groups would typically not be enough to render voting rules illegal under the act.

The decision, addressing Arizona’s bans on out-of-precinct voting and a practice critics call “ballot harvesting,” could make it more difficult for voting rights activists to challenge a slew of new voting restrictions Republicans are seeking to implement in states across the country.

The court’s majority opinion, from Justice Samuel Alito, does not offer a bright-line test for future cases. However, he stressed that rules posing only a modest burden on voters would not usually amount to a violation of the act.

“Every voting rule imposes a burden of some sort. Voting takes time and, for almost everyone, some travel, even if only to a nearby mailbox. Casting a vote, whether by following the directions for using a voting machine or completing a paper ballot, requires compliance with certain rules,” Alito wrote.

Alito also stressed that not every disparity in impact on minority voters would run afoul of the law.

“The mere fact there is some disparity in impact does not necessarily mean that a system is not equally open or that it does not give everyone an equal opportunity to vote. The size of any disparity matters,” he wrote. “What are at bottom very small differences should not be artificially magnified.”

All the court’s liberals dissented, joining an opinion by Justice Elena Kagan that portrayed Thursday’s ruling as part of a profound and ongoing curtailment of the landmark 1965 voting rights law by the high court.

“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,” Kagan wrote. “What is tragic is that the Court has damaged a statute designed to bring about ‘the end of discrimination in voting.'”

Kagan pointedly accuses the conservative justices of betraying a principle they claim to hold dear: that statutes should be unfailingly interpreted according to the text Congress enacted.

“The majority fears that the statute Congress wrote is too ‘radical’ — that it will invalidate too many state voting laws,” Kagan writes. “So the majority writes its own set of rules, limiting Section 2 from multiple directions.”

Language added to the Voting Rights Act in 1982 prohibits states or localities from employing any election practice which “results” in the infringement of voting rights “on account of race.”

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I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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