How Convenient Should Voting Be? Court Ruling Leaves No Clear Answer

The Supreme Court’s decision on voting rights suggests that limits to the convenience of voting methods may be relatively permissible, while new burdens on casting a ballot in-person might be more vulnerable.,

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What kind of restrictions on voting violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act? That’s the basic question in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold two Arizona voting provisions last week.

The court’s decision didn’t offer a clear answer. Instead, it offered “guideposts” to illustrate why the Arizona law passed muster, without clearly indicating when a law might go too far. Those guideposts appear to set a high bar for successful voting rights litigation.

But the guideposts offer lessons about what kinds of voting restrictions might be more or less vulnerable to legal challenge.

Many of those lessons stem from a central concept underlying the decision: the idea that every voting system imposes certain “usual” burdens on voters, like traveling to a polling station or returning your ballot.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, made the case that these burdens may inevitably result in “some” racial disparity. As a result, the conservative justices reject the idea that racial disparity alone is sufficient to establish that a state denied everyone an equal opportunity to vote. That leaves the court looking for signs of a particularly unusual and distinctive burden, even though this added hurdle doesn’t exist in the text of the Voting Rights Act.

The court found, without too much trouble, that the two Arizona laws weren’t particularly unusual or burdensome. That was not surprising. Even the Biden Justice Department said the laws did not violate the Voting Rights Act. But the way the court reached that conclusion nonetheless said a lot about what kinds of laws might survive judicial scrutiny.

The court’s reasoning suggests that restrictions on the convenience of voting methods may be relatively permissible, while new burdens on in-person voting, whether a reduction in precincts or new voter identification requirements, might be more vulnerable. It may even mean that states with relatively lenient voting laws might have more leeway to impose new restrictions. And no matter what, a fairly large racial disparity — backed by strong statistical evidence — may be crucial in future cases.

So what’s a usual burden, anyway? Oddly enough, the clearest benchmark offered by the court is whether a rule imposes a burden that was typical in 1982, when the Voting Rights Act was last amended.

If the burden on voters was typical at the time, the thinking goes, then Congress probably didn’t intend to undermine those provisions.

What kind of burden would that be? The court went out of its way to note that there was virtually no early or no-excuse mail absentee voting at the time. That can lead one to infer that the court may be fairly likely to accept restrictions on mail and early voting. From this point of view, convenience voting is a bonus option for voters, and any restriction would still leave voters less burdened than they were 40 years ago.

The court refrained from deciding “whether adherence to, or a return to, a 1982 framework is necessarily lawful.” Perhaps it would not be, since nonwhite voters now disproportionately use methods intended to make voting more convenient, like early voting. And many states have scaled back their traditional Election Day voting options as demand has declined; simply eliminating convenience voting would often leave many voters with fewer options than they had 40 years ago. On the other hand, there’s not much evidence that expanded voting options have narrowed racial disparities in turnout.

Wherever the court draws the line, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that new ways to make voting more convenient will not be vigorously protected by the court.

At the same time, the court may look askance at novel regulations that impose burdens beyond what existed in 1982. Strict photo identification requirements, for instance, did not exist back then. And there was a certain level of basic access, in terms of the availability of in-person precincts, registration and voting hours, which the court would presumably be likely to protect.

In oral arguments, Justice Elena Kagan asked whether it would be legal for a state to put all of its polling places in country clubs, where Black voters would need to travel farther than whites and would fear discrimination and experience a high level of discomfort. A 1982 standard, whatever its merits, would offer some level of protections against that kind of extreme possibility, even as it may allow rollbacks in mail and early voting.

With the court resigned to some inevitable racial disparities in voting, successful voting rights litigation may entail finding a fairly large racial disparity.

How large? Well, probably larger or clearer than in the Arizona case.

The court believed that the requirement to vote in your own precinct would affect 1 percent of nonwhite in-person voters and .5 percent of non-Hispanic white in-person voters, or a disparity of about .5 percentage points. Even these figures overstate the share of voters who would be affected by the provision, as the majority of Arizonans cast ballots by mail, not in-person.

Strong statistical evidence is also clearly important. The plaintiffs did not have any statistics to establish whether banning third-party ballot collection would create a large racial disparity in voting, and the court brushed aside the testimonial evidence that it was used more by non-white and especially Native American voters.

If there’s any consolation for voting rights activists, it’s that many of the most prominent “voter suppression” laws usually feature clear statistical evidence showing that it imposes a burden on a larger share of eligible voters than Arizona’s requirement that voters cast ballots in their own precinct. But what the statistical threshold is for striking down a restrictive law based on racial disparity — 2 points, 5 points, 10 points? — remains to be seen.

Not even evidence of an unusual burden or a strong racial disparity would necessarily ensure the demise of a voting restriction, under the new ruling. The court also says it will weigh the strength of the state’s interest in regulating its elections against whatever burden it imposes.

Judge Alito stated unequivocally in his opinion that preventing fraud was a “strong and entirely legitimate” state interest. A restriction that can be construed as a “reasonable means” for pursuing a legitimate state interest, like preventing fraud or ensuring that votes are cast free from intimidation, will be easier for the state to justify.

Other restrictions, like eliminating automatic voter registration or Sunday early voting, do not have a clear connection to a strong state interest, like reducing fraud, and could be more likely to violate the Voting Rights Act.

The case said relatively little new about establishing discriminatory intent, the focus of the Justice Department’s case in Georgia. The court reiterated its view that restrictions intended to advantage a specific political party are acceptable, though that distinction may be harder to sustain in Georgia, where Black voters make up an outright majority of Democrats. And the court rejected the theory that an otherwise legitimate and non-discriminatory legislative effort can be contaminated by racially tinged outside context. But that is not the allegation in Georgia, where the Justice Department asserts that the legislative process itself was flawed.

Perhaps the most analytically significant twist in the court’s analysis is that it believes a state’s entire system of voting must be considered when evaluating the burden imposed by a provision.

In a certain sense, it’s obvious that a state’s voting system affects whether a particular restriction imposes a great burden on voters. If Texas passed a law to require only a single in-person voting center per county, it might be tantamount to an end to free and fair elections in the state. But that’s the standard in Washington State, where nearly all votes are cast by mail.

The court takes this proposition pretty far in the Arizona case. It implies that the availability of multiple, relatively easy options allows for restrictions on any particular option. It says, for instance, that the availability of no-excuse absentee voting — as opposed to universal vote by mail in Washington State — makes it easier to accept restrictions on in-person Election Day voting, even though many voters do not use mail voting and the opportunity to apply for a mail ballot has passed by the time Election Day rolls around.

As a result, states offering more voting opportunities will probably find it easier to defend new voting restrictions. That’s probably good news for a state like Georgia, which has no-excuse absentee, early and Election Day voting.

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