The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in a case that will shape the future of restrictive voting rights laws. The court heard arguments in the combined cases of Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee and Arizona Republican Party v. Democratic National Committee concerning two Arizona state laws. The first law bars the counting of ballots if voters cast them in the incorrect precinct; the second law prohibits anyone other than a family member or caregiver from turning in another individual’s ballot.
The Voting Rights Act, a landmark federal civil rights statute, was enacted in 1965. Section 5 of the Act provides that states with a history of voting discrimination must get federal preclearance before enacting voting laws. Section 4(b) defined which jurisdictions were required to obtain preclearance. In the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 4(b) of the Act was no longer constitutional because “the formula used to determine coverage was based on data that was 40 years old, making it no longer representative to current needs.”
Tuesday’s arguments centered on Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Although Section 2 applies equally to all states and prohibits them from enacting discriminatory voting laws, the question is what standard should be used in determining whether a law is discriminatory. A 1982 Senate Judiciary report highlighted the need for a “totality of the circumstances” test to determine a Section 2 violation.
Attorneys for Arizona and the Arizona Republican Party argued that the laws were necessary in order to prevent fraud and that the “totality of the circumstances” test required that the court also look at the number of ways that Arizona makes it possible for its citizens to vote. Attorneys for the Democratic National Committee argued that the court should focus on the actual impact that the laws had on voting access, especially by considering the geography of the state and how ballot-collecting laws affect minority groups.
In her opening statement for the defendant, Attorney Jessica Amunson said:
When an eligible voter casts a ballot and that ballot is discarded rather than counted, that voter has been denied the right to vote. Likewise, when an eligible voter relies on ballot collection to vote and that practice is criminalized, that citizen’s vote right has at the very least been abridged. The question then is whether that denial or abridgement has occurred on account of race. Section 2’s plain text tells courts how to answer that question and the statutory command to answer based on the totality of circumstances necessarily requires rejection of the inflexible rules Petitioners advocate. To the contrary, it mandates what this Court has called a searching, practical evaluation of the past and present reality and a functional view of the political process.
The Supreme Court typically releases opinions by the end June.