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What The Supreme Court's Arizona Decision Means For The Voting Rights Act

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court today gutted most of what remains of the landmark Voting Rights Act. The court's decision left some protections involving redistricting in place, but it left close to decimated the law once hailed as the most effective civil rights legislation in the nation's history. The 6-3 vote was along conservative-liberal lines. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: At issue were two Arizona laws. One banned the collection of absentee ballots by anyone other than a relative or a caregiver, and the other threw out any ballots cast in the wrong precinct. A federal appeals court struck down both provisions, ruling that they had an unequal impact on minority voters and that there was no evidence of fraud that would have justified their use. But today the Supreme Court reinstated those laws, declaring that the unequal impact on minorities was relatively minor, that other states have similar laws and that states don't have to wait for fraud to occur before enacting laws to prevent it.

Just because voting may be inconvenient for some, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, doesn't mean that access to voting is unequal. And he said that in evaluating what the Voting Rights Act requires, courts should look to what the voting rules were in 1982, when the relevant provision of the law was enacted. Back then, he observed, almost all voting was in-person and on Election Day. And the mere fact that there is some disparity in impact does not necessarily mean that the system is not equally open or that it does not give everyone an equal opportunity to vote.

RICHARD HASEN: Justice Alito is trying to turn back the clock on voting rights many decades.

TOTENBERG: Richard Hasen is a leading expert on voting rights and a professor at the University of California Irvine.

HASEN: I think it's fair to say that all of the major paths to challenging voting rules in federal court have been severely cut back.

TOTENBERG: Debo Adegbile, a longtime civil rights attorney, called the decision very troubling.

DEBO ADEGBILE: It very much narrows the path of challenging these many, many voter obstacles that states are instituting across the country.

TOTENBERG: Election law expert Richard Pildes of NYU Law School adds that the court could have upheld the Arizona laws in a narrow way, as the Biden administration has suggested. But the conservative court majority swung for the fences by saying that laws likely do not violate the Voting Rights Act when they're like laws that existed 40 years ago or laws that exist today in many states.

RICHARD PILDES: Early voting really began in the mid-2000s, and the move to no-excuse absentee voting began kind of earlier on than that. That's a very significant development that's really made the process much more accessible to more people.

TOTENBERG: That may be true, but it was not the baseline established by the court today. Writing for the dissent, Justice Elena Kagan accused the majority of yet again rewriting the Voting Rights Act, a law she noted that was designed to bring about the end of discrimination in voting. Never before has a statute done more to advance the nation's highest ideals, she said. Few laws are more vital in the current moment. Yet in the last decade, this court has treated no statute worse. The Voting Rights Act confronted one of this country's most enduring wrongs and pledged to give every American of every race an equal chance to participate in our democracy, she said. That law of all laws should not be diminished by this court.

Election law experts said today's ruling will likely have an immediate impact in Georgia, making it much more difficult for the Biden administration to win its recent challenge to newly enacted voting restrictions in the Peach State. The ruling will also add pressure on Democrats in the Senate to try to find a way to enact a new voting rights law, some version of bills already passed by the House and blocked by Republicans in the Senate. But voting rights advocates are caught between a Supreme Court hostile to voting rights and a Republican Party that has abandoned its one-time support for voting rights. Again, Professor Hasen.

HASEN: We've seen a sea change in the Republican Party's attitudes towards the Voting Rights Act. As the Republican Party becomes more reliant on white voters, it has less of an incentive to support any renewed voting rights protection.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.