The US Supreme Court on Thursday upheld controversial Arizona laws that restrict how ballots can be cast, a decision that could have lasting impact on the voting rights of minorities.
The ruling raises questions about the potential success of future challenges against such laws, at a time when Republican legislatures in several states are moving to enact restrictions that critics warn are intended to suppress the vote.
The decision was 6-3, with the court’s three liberal justices in dissent.
The case, Brnovich vs Democratic National Committee (DNC), involves two Republican-backed electoral laws that were seen as a key test of the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act, which sought in part to prevent discrimination against Black voters.
One requires citizens who vote on election day to cast ballots in the precinct in which they live, while another makes it a felony for advocates like union representatives to collect and deposit voters’ ballots, a process critics call ballot harvesting.
The DNC filed suit, arguing that such provisions were enacted with discriminatory intent and violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
A federal appeals court ruled last year that the laws would adversely impact African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans, who for socioeconomic reasons are less able to travel to polling stations.
Supporters of the state laws argued in the Supreme Court, where conservative-leaning justices have a 6-3 majority, that the laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud.
Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, said in the decision that every American faces at least some voting burden and that “mere inconvenience” is not enough to demonstrate a violation of Section 2.
The impact of the laws, he argued, was negligible.
“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,” Alito wrote.
“The size of any disparity matters.”
Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissent that the decision “undermines” the Voting Rights Act and its twin premises of democracy and racial equality.
“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.
The decision is the second blow against the Voting Rights Act in under a decade.
The Supreme Court in 2013 struck down part of the act, which had required states with a history of voter discrimination to first receive a green light from the federal authorities before changing any voting rules.