U.S. Supreme Court backs voting restrictions in Arizona

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday endorsed two Republican-backed ballot restrictions in Arizona that a lower court found had disproportionately burdened Black, Latino and Native American voters, handing a defeat to voting rights advocates and Democrats who had challenged the measures.

The 6-3 ruling, with the court’s conservative justices in the majority, held that the restrictions on early ballot collection by third parties and where absentee ballots may be cast did not violate the Voting Rights Act, a landmark 1965 federal law that prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

The court’s three liberal justices dissented from the decision.

The decision comes at a time when states are pursuing a series of Republican-backed voting restrictions in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s claims of widespread election fraud and irregularities in his 2020 loss to now-President Joe Biden.

The ruling represented a victory for the Arizona Republican Party and the state’s Republican attorney general, Mark Brnovich. They had appealed a lower court ruling that had deemed the restrictions unlawful.

The case involves a 2016 Arizona law that made it a crime to provide another person’s completed early ballot to election officials, with the exception of family members or caregivers. Community activists sometimes engage in ballot collection to facilitate voting and increase voter turnout. Ballot collection is legal in most states, with varying limitations. Republican critics call the practice “ballot harvesting.”

The other restriction at issue was a longstanding Arizona policy that discards ballots cast in-person at a precinct other than the one to which a voter has been assigned. In some places, voters’ precincts are not the closest one to their home.

The case raised questions over whether fraud must be documented in order to justify new curbs.

Democrats have accused Republicans at the state level of enacting voter-suppression measures to make it harder for racial minorities who tend to support Democratic candidates to cast ballots. Many Republicans have justified new restrictions as a means to reduce voter fraud, a phenomenon that election experts have said is rare in the United States.

Republicans are seeking to regain control of the U.S. Congress from the Democrats in the 2022 mid-term elections.

The Arizona legal battle concerned a specific provision called Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act that bans voting policies or practices that result in racial discrimination. Section 2 has been the main tool used to show that voting curbs discriminate against minorities since the Supreme Court in 2013 gutted another section of the statute that determined which states with a history of racial discrimination needed federal approval to change voting laws.

Arizona Republicans said in court papers that voting restrictions have partisan effects and impact elections. Invalidating the out-of-precinct policy would reduce Republican electoral prospects because it would increase Democratic turnout, they told the justices during March 2 arguments in the case.

The Republicans said that “race-neutral” regulations on the time, place or manner of an election do not deny anyone their right to vote and that federal law does not require protocols to maximize the participation of racial minorities.

The Democratic National Committee and the Arizona Democratic Party sued over the restrictions. Arizona’s Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has backed the challenge to the measures.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year found Arizona’s restrictions violated the Voting Rights Act, though they remained in effect for the Nov. 3 election in which Joe Biden, a Democrat, defeated Donald Trump, a Republican, in the state.

The 9th Circuit also found that “false, race-based claims of ballot collection fraud” were used to convince Arizona legislators to enact that restriction with discriminatory intent, violating the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on denying voting rights based on race.

U.S. Senate Republicans on June 23 blocked Democratic-backed legislation that would broadly expand voting rights and establish uniform national voting standards to offset the wave new Republican-led voting restrictions in states.

Biden has sharply criticized Republican-backed state voting restrictions. Biden called a measure signed by Georgia’s Republican governor in March “an atrocity” and likened it to racist “Jim Crow” laws enacted in Southern states in the decades after the 1861-65 U.S. Civil War to legalize racial segregation and disenfranchise Black people.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley in Washington and Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court begins arguments in major voting rights case

By Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court justices on Tuesday began hearing arguments on the legality of two Republican-backed voting restrictions in Arizona in a case that could further weaken the Voting Rights Act, a landmark 1965 federal law that bars racial discrimination in voting.

The important voting rights case comes before the justices at a time when Republicans in numerous states are pursuing new restrictions after former President Donald Trump made claims of widespread fraud in the Nov. 3 election. Republican proponents of Arizona’s restrictions cite the need to combat voting fraud.

The justices are hearing arguments by teleconference in appeals by Arizona’s Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich and the state Republican Party of a lower court ruling that found that the voting restrictions at issue disproportionately burdened Black, Hispanic and Native American voters.

One of the measures made it a crime to provide another person’s completed early ballot to election officials, with the exception of family members or caregivers. The other disqualified ballots cast in-person at a precinct other than the one to which a voter has been assigned.

Community activists sometimes engage in ballot collection to facilitate voting and increase voter turnout. The practice, which critics call “ballot harvesting,” is legal in most states, with varying limitations. Voting rights advocates said voters sometimes inadvertently cast ballots at the wrong precinct, with the assigned polling place sometimes not the one closest to a voter’s home.

A broad ruling by the high court, whose 6-3 conservative majority includes three justices appointed by Trump, endorsing the restrictions could impair the Voting Rights Act by making it harder to prove violations. Such a ruling could impact the 2022 mid-term elections in which Republicans are trying to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate from the Democrats.

A ruling is due by the end of June.

At issue is the Voting Rights Act’s Section 2, which bans any rule that results in voting discrimination “on account of race or color.” This provision has been the main tool used to show that voting curbs discriminate against minorities since the Supreme Court in 2013 gutted another section of the statute that determined which states with a history of racial discrimination needed federal approval to change voting laws.

The Democratic National Committee and the Arizona Democratic Party sued to try to overturn Arizona’s restrictions. The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year found that the restrictions violated the Voting Rights Act, though they remained in effect for the Nov. 3 election.

The 9th Circuit also found that “false, race-based claims of ballot collection fraud” were used to convince Arizona legislators to enact that restriction with discriminatory intent, violating the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on denying voting rights based on race.

Numerous courts rejected claims of voting fraud made in lawsuits by Trump and his allies seeking to overturn his loss to Biden. Eleven Republican U.S. senators including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Ted Cruz submitted a brief to the Supreme Court supporting the Arizona restrictions.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Arizona voting curbs remain as U.S. Supreme Court takes Republican appeal

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear a defense by Arizona Republicans of two voting restrictions in the state that were ruled unlawful by a lower court as disproportionately burdening Black, Hispanic and Native American voters, meaning the measures will remain in place for the Nov. 3 election.

The measures prohibit absentee ballot collection by third parties and the counting of ballots cast at the wrong polling precinct. The justices will hear appeals of a January ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidating the provisions as violations of the Voting Rights Act, a 1965 U.S. law that barred racial discrimination in voting.

Both measures will stay in place for the upcoming election because the 9th Circuit put its decision on hold pending Supreme Court action on the appeal filed by the state, Republican Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich and the state Republican Party.

Brnovich praised the court’s agreement to hear the appeal, adding, “As we contend with a politically polarized climate and battle a global pandemic, we must sustain the cornerstone of our government and ensure the true will of the electorate is heard.”

The Arizona dispute involves a Republican-backed 2016 state law that made it a crime to hand someone else’s completed early ballot to election officials, with the exception of family members or caregivers. Community activists sometimes engage in such ballot collection to facilitate voting and increase voter turnout. Critics call the practice ballot harvesting.

Ballot collection is legal in most states, with varying limitations. Twenty-six states allow voters to designate someone to return their ballot for them, 10 allow family members to do so, while the rest require voters to return their own ballot or are silent on the issue.

The case also involves a longstanding state policy that discards provisional ballots cast in-person at a precinct other than the one to which a voter has been assigned. In some places, a voter’s precinct is not the closest precinct to their home. Provisional ballots are those cast when a voter does not appear on that precinct’s voter rolls.

Nearly 30,000 out-of-precinct ballots were tossed out during the 2008, 2012 and 2016 presidential elections in Arizona, court filings said.

The Democratic National Committee and the Arizona Democratic Party sued the state’s Republican officials in 2016 over the provisions.

The 9th Circuit ruled that both Arizona voting measures had a discriminatory impact on racial minorities in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The 9th Circuit further found that the ballot collection prohibition violated the U.S. Constitution’s 15th Amendment, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting, noting that “false, race-based claims of ballot collection fraud” were used to convince Arizona legislators to pass the law.

The case, which began in 2016, is part of a wave of voting-related litigation ahead of the November election in which President Donald Trump is seeking a second term.

It touches upon issues including voting by mail that Trump has seized upon in his attacks on the integrity of the election. He and some fellow Republicans have asserted, without evidence, that a surge in mail-in voting amid the coronavirus pandemic will lead to election fraud, which is exceptionally rare in the United States.

The court took action in the case three days before it begins its new nine-month term short one justice after the Sept. 18 death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. President Donald Trump has nominated federal appeals court judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ginsburg.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Additional reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Will Dunham)