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Supreme Court Upholds Arizona Voting Restrictions, Dealing Blow To Voting Rights

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Supreme Court has dealt a blow to the Voting Rights Act. On the last day of the term, the court's conservative justices empowered state control of elections and made it harder to challenge laws that may put minority voters at a disadvantage. The 6-3 ruling comes at a time when many states, especially those with Republican legislatures, are tightening voting laws. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Since its enactment in 1965, the Voting Rights Act has been renewed and amended five times, most recently in 2006, always by huge bipartisan majorities. But as conservatives gained dominance on the Supreme Court, the conservative majority took a wrecking ball to the law. In 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts, who'd been the Reagan administration's point man in opposing the law, wrote the court's opinion gutting the law's most important provision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN ROBERTS: Any racial discrimination in voting is too much. But our country has changed in the past 50 years.

TOTENBERG: Overnight, gone was the key enforcement provision of the law which required state and local governments with a history of race discrimination in voting to get federal approval in advance for any changes in their voting rules. Within days of the decision's announcement, Republican-dominated jurisdictions began enacting provisions that critics said made it more difficult for minorities to vote. And so, minority groups turned to the other major section of the law, referred to as Section 2, which bars voting procedures that, quote, "result in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen to vote on account of race or color."

Yesterday, though, the Supreme Court eviscerated that provision, too, rendering the Voting Rights Act close to a dead letter. Reinstating two Arizona laws that had been struck down by a lower court, the conservative majority said the unequal impact on minority voters was small, that other states have similar laws and that states don't have to wait for fraud to occur before enacting laws to prevent it. Writing for the conservative majority, Justice Samuel Alito said that just because voting may be, quote, "inconvenient for some" doesn't mean that access to voting is unequal. And he noted that when this provision of the voting rights law was enacted almost 40 years ago, almost all voting was in person and on Election Day. The unstated inference was that states could do that again now.

Election law expert Richard Hasen, who teaches at the University of California, Irvine.

RICHARD HASEN: We have a court here that is being less and less protective of voting rights and more and more protective of the ability of states to make it harder for people to vote.

TOTENBERG: Normally, that would be a recipe for congressional action, notes New York University election law expert Richard Pildes.

RICHARD PILDES: Especially in light of this decision, it would be good for Congress to weigh in and give more specificity to what's banned and what's not banned.

TOTENBERG: But that is a tall order in these divided times when Republicans, once avid supporters of the Voting Rights Act, now have largely abandoned it. As Hasen observes, there's been a sea change in the Republican Party.

HASEN: As the Republican Party becomes more reliant on white voters, it has less of an incentive to support any renewed voting rights protection.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, while the U.S. House, controlled by Democrats, has passed a bill establishing national voting rights rules, the Senate has refused to even consider it. And with President Trump falsely claiming that the presidential election was stolen from him and a widely discredited audit of the election results in Arizona still going on, the divisions have only deepened, as professor Pildes observes.

PILDES: People worry about two things. One is they worry about every individual's right to vote, even if it doesn't have a dramatic overall effect potentially on elections. And people are very concerned that we have had a lot of close elections. And margins that are small can turn out to be significant. And this goes back to Bush v. Gore.

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