The Supreme Court’s Baleful Brnovich Decision

By Robert Weissman

On July, on the final day of its term, the Supreme Court of the United States by 6-3 vote upheld a pair of racist voting restrictions in Arizona.

Any person in America who remained under the illusion that they could rely on the U.S. Supreme Court to protect voting rights must now be permanently disabused of that notion. In its shocking Brnovich decision, the Supreme Court has again demonstrated that it will not protect voting rights in America.

The Supreme Court’s decision, of course, follows a wave of measures in states across the country designed to make it harder to vote – and, particularly, to make it harder for people of color to vote.

This is an astounding moment in our country’s history, one that many of us thought impossible. The nation is backtracking on the fundamental voting rights gains secured by the civil rights in the 1960s and in subsequent years.

The project that Public Citizen began years ago: To win sweeping, pro-democracy legislation – embodied now in the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act – now has an urgency and criticality that even we never imagined. If voting rights are to be protected and our democracy to be preserved and improved, we need these new laws now.

Here’s what went down with the Supreme Court decision:

  • Arizona’s Republican-dominated Legislature and its Trumpist governor recently enacted laws that make it harder for people of color to vote.
  • Those laws were challenged under Section 2 of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits any voting procedure that restricts someone’s right to vote because of their race, color, or use of certain languages other than English.
  • But the Supreme Court upheld Arizona’s voting restrictions even though the laws impact people of color more severely than other voters.
  • According to the six Republicans on the Supreme Court, that “disparate impact” on people of color wasn’t enough to overturn Arizona’s voting restrictions.
  • Instead, the Supreme Court’s Republican majority bought the bogus excuse that Arizona’s laws were intended to prevent voter fraud — which of course is practically non-existent.

With the ruling, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the existing Voting Rights Act can no longer protect our democracy from flagrantly racist voting restrictions that make it harder for people of color to vote. The Court also signaled to states that, there’s a good chance that it will uphold obviously racially discriminatory voting laws if states simply invoke the fig leaf of “voter fraud” as justification.

(If this sounds familiar, that’s because in 2013 the Supreme Court gutted another section of the Voting Rights Act that required states and localities with histories of racist voter suppression to get federal approval for changes to their voting laws.)

By upholding Arizona’s racist voting restrictions, the Supreme Court has set an alarmingly anti-democratic precedent.

Republican legislators all across the country will be even more emboldened in their fanatical drive to disenfranchise certain Americans via racist voting restrictions.

The result of all this is that our democracy is at a make-or-break moment. If we pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, we can undo the voting restrictions imposed by states and re-empower the Justice Department to enforce the Voting Rights Act. But these bills aren’t primarily defensive; they will expand the franchise, by creating automatic voter registration across the country, restoring voting rights to people who have completed felony sentences, expanding early and absentee voting, making voting by mail easier and more.

The For the People Act will additionally end extreme partisan and racial gerrymandering, and replace Big Money dominance of our elections with a system that relies on public matching funds to enhance the impact of small-dollar donations.

At the time of publication, Senator Joe Manchin, D-WV, is the only Democratic senator yet to co-sponsor the For the People Act (the John Lewis Act is expected to be introduced in September). We are working with allies to do everything in our power to win Manchin’s support – and, crucially, he voted in favor of debate on the bill in June — and to win agreement on a workaround for the filibuster (which would require 10 Republicans to support the bills). The Supreme Court’s deplorable decision underscores that it is absolutely imperative we prevail. We intend to do nothing less.