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SCOTUS Could Limit Voting Rights Suits 02/28 09:05

   Eight years after carving the heart out of a landmark voting rights law, the 
Supreme Court is looking at putting new limits on efforts to combat racial 
discrimination in voting.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Eight years after carving the heart out of a landmark 
voting rights law, the Supreme Court is looking at putting new limits on 
efforts to combat racial discrimination in voting.

   The justices are taking up a case about Arizona restrictions on ballot 
collection and another policy that penalizes voters who cast ballots in the 
wrong precinct.

   The high court's consideration comes as Republican officials in the state 
and around the country have proposed more than 150 measures, following last 
year's elections, to restrict voting access that civil rights groups say would 
disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic voters.

   A broad Supreme Court ruling would make it harder to fight those efforts in 
court. Arguments are set for Tuesday via telephone, because of the coronavirus 
pandemic.

   "It would be taking away one of the big tools, in fact, the main tool we 
have left now, to protect voters against racial discrimination," said Myrna 
Perez, director of the Brennan Center for Justice's voting rights and elections 
program.

   Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican, said the high court 
case is about ballot integrity, not discrimination. "This is about protecting 
the franchise, not disenfranchising anyone," said Brnovich, who will argue the 
case on Tuesday.

   President Joe Biden narrowly won Arizona last year, and since 2018, the 
state has elected two Democratic senators.

   The justices will be reviewing an appeals court ruling against a 2016 
Arizona law that limits who can return early ballots for another person and 
against a separate state policy of discarding ballots if a voter goes to the 
wrong precinct.

   The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ballot-collection law 
and the state policy discriminate against minority voters in violation of the 
federal Voting Rights Act and that the law also violates the Constitution.

   The Voting Rights Act, first enacted in 1965, was extremely effective 
against discrimination at the ballot box because it forced state and local 
governments, with a history of discrimination, including Arizona, to get 
advance approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before making 
any changes to elections.

   In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the portion of the law known as 
Section 5 could no longer be enforced because the population formula for 
determining which states were covered hadn't been updated to take account of 
racial progress.

   Congress "must identify those jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis 
that makes sense in light of current conditions," Chief Justice John Roberts 
wrote for a conservative majority. "It cannot rely simply on the past."

   Democrats in Congress will try again to revive the advance approval 
provision of the voting rights law. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement 
Act failed in the last Congress, when Republicans controlled the Senate and 
President Donald Trump was in the White House.

   But another part of the law, Section 2, applies nationwide and still 
prohibits discrimination in voting on the basis of race. Civil rights groups 
and voters alleging racial bias have to go to court and prove their case either 
by showing intentional discrimination in passing a law or that the results of 
the law fall most heavily on minorities.

   The new Supreme Court case mainly concerns how plaintiffs can prove 
discrimination based on the law's results.

   The arguments are taking place against the backdrop of the 2020 election, in 
which there was a massive increase in early voting and mailed-in ballots 
because of the pandemic. Trump and his Republican supporters challenged the 
election results by advancing claims of fraud that were broadly rejected by 
state and federal courts.

   But many Republicans continue to question the election's outcome, despite 
the absence of evidence. GOP elected officials have responded by proposing to 
restrict early voting and mailed-in ballots, as well as toughen voter 
identification laws.

   The challenged Arizona provisions remained in effect in 2020 because the 
case was still making its way through the courts.

   But Brnovich said last year's voting is another reason the justices should 
side with the state. "I think part of the lesson of 2020 was that when people 
don't believe that elections have integrity or that their vote is being 
protected, it will lead to undermining the public's confidence in the system," 
Brnovich said.

   Civil rights groups said the court should not use this case to make it 
harder to root out racial discrimination, which "still poses a unique threat to 
our democracy," as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund put it in a 
brief.

   Nearly 75 businesses, including PayPal, Levi Strauss and Impossible Foods, 
joined in a brief urging the court to "fully preserve the Voting Rights Act."

   The Justice Department will not be part of Tuesday's arguments, a rarity in 
a voting rights case.

   The Trump administration backed Arizona. The Biden administration, in a 
somewhat cryptic letter to the court, said this month that it believes "neither 
Arizona measure violates Section 2's results test," but doesn't like the way 
its predecessor analyzed the issues.

   The suggestion from the new administration could give the court a narrow way 
to uphold the Arizona provisions without making any significant changes to 
voting discrimination law.

   A decision is expected by early summer.

 
 
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