WASHINGTON – Supreme Court justices asked skeptical questions Tuesday about Arizona’s election laws in a case that has emerged as an important test of voting rights law.
The case concerns whether two state laws violate section 2 of the law: one blocks the counting of ballots cast in the wrong constituency and another prohibits anyone other than a member. family or caregiver to collect and deliver a voter’s mail ballot.
On the one hand, the state of Arizona and the Republicans, who want to keep the laws tough on the books and argue they prevent fraud. And on the other side are the Democrats, who want the laws struck down and argue that the rules prevent voters, especially minorities, from voting.
Voting restrictions are being fought in a state where Republicans have dominated local and national races for generations, but where recently Democrats have gained traction and won both seats in the United States Senate and the presidential contest of the year. last. The outcome of this case could also have far-reaching implications for voting laws in other states.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Amy Coney Barrett, two Republican appointments and potentially crucial votes in the case, appeared to wrestle with the arguments as they put tough questions to lawyers on both sides.
Roberts asked the lawyer for the Arizona GOP, which defends the laws, why it is “a bad thing” for election procedures to seek “racial proportionality.”
He later urged the Democrats’ lawyer to define what they think it would take to make a law unacceptable. “What if the provision results in a 1 percent drop in minority voter turnout – does that matter enough?” He asked.
Barrett told the Arizona state attorney that there were “certain contradictions” in his argument and that his task was to show why the changes in the laws preserved equality of “opportunity” for women. white and non-white voters.
But later, she appeared torn over whether Arizona’s laws crossed the line. “There is a difficulty that the statutory wording and its lack of clarity presents in trying to understand when something goes from an inconvenience to a burden,” Barrett said.
Roberts and Barrett, along with the two other judges appointed by former President Donald Trump, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, will likely be the deciding votes in the case.
A significant moment in the virtual wrangling came when Arizona GOP attorney Michael Carvin tied the validity of Republican-backed laws to the party’s interest in winning an election.
Asked by Barrett what the interest of the Republican Party was in this matter, he replied, “Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage to the Democrats.” Politics is a zero-sum game. And every additional vote they get through illegal interpretations of section 2 hurts us. It’s the difference between winning an election 50-49 and losing an election. “
None of the three judges appointed by Trump were on the Supreme Court eight years ago when it last delivered a landmark opinion on the voting rights law, downplaying the impact of Section 5, which ensured that states with a history of discrimination were granted permission to change. voting laws. At the time, Roberts drafted Decision 5-4, arguing that conditions had improved in the South and that the formula for weighing down states was invalid.
Kavanaugh, echoing Barrett, said the limits of the voting rights law were “obscure”.
Gorsuch seemed more sympathetic to Arizona laws. At one point, he urged a lawyer challenging the provisions to admit that the state has an interest in preventing voter fraud.
Judge Elena Kagan asked lawyers about three hypothetical changes to election laws: eliminating all Sunday votes (while observing that black Americans vote at much higher rates on Sunday), moving all polling stations to a country club (and away from minority neighborhoods), and change voting times from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (when working-class voters are at their work).
“These are all assumptions that never existed in the real world,” Carvin said at one point, sounding frustrated with the line of questioning.
Carvin argued that the universe of laws that are not valid under section 2 of the Voting Rights Act is “extraordinarily limited”. He said the question was not about the “outcome,” but rather whether the law imposes unequal “opportunity” on white and non-white voters, regardless of socio-economic differences.
A moment of controversy arose when Judge Sonia Sotomayor urged Carvin to explain why a government that severely restricts voting options in minority areas was not denying the right to vote.
“If you cannot vote for these reasons and you are not, and your vote is not counted, you have been denied the right to vote, have you not?” she asked.
“I don’t think anyone would say you were denied the right to a regular hearing,” Carvin said.
“This is not a due process demand,” interrupted Sotomayor. “You are denied something if you are not entitled to vote… in circumstances that the state could easily remedy.”