WASHINGTON – Congressional Democrats are facing renewed pressure to pass legislation that would protect voting rights after a Supreme Court ruling made it harder to challenge Republican efforts to limit ballot access in many states.
The 6-3 ruling Thursday on a case out of Arizona was the second time in a decade that conservatives on the Supreme Court have weakened components of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark Civil Rights-era law. But this opinion was released in a much different political climate, in the aftermath of President Donald Trump's lie that last year's election was stolen.
Trump's fabrications spurred Republicans in states such as Georgia and Florida to pass tougher rules on voting under the cloak of election integrity.
Democrats on Capitol Hill have already tried to respond with a sweeping voting and elections bill that Senate Republicans united to block last week. A separate bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore sections of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court previously weakened, has been similarly dismissed by most Republicans.
Those setbacks, combined with the Supreme Court's decision, have fueled a sense of urgency among Democrats to act while they still have narrow majorities in the House and Senate. But passing voting legislation at this point would almost certainly require changes to the filibuster, allowing Democrats to act without GOP support.
“Absolutely this increases the pressure to take a very hard look at whether the Senate is an institution that will allow itself to be rendered powerless and dysfunctional,” said Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who sponsored a voting bill that passed the House in March.
Change won't be easy. A group of moderate Democratic senators, including Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have ruled out revisions to the filibuster. In an evenly divided Senate, their rejection denies the votes needed to move forward with a procedural change.
Thursday's ruling was on a case in Sinema’s home state. In an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, the court reversed an appellate ruling in deciding that Arizona’s regulations — on who can return early ballots for another person and on refusing to count ballots cast in the wrong precinct — are not racially discriminatory.
Sinema assailed the decision in a statement, saying it would “hurt Arizonans’ ability to make their voices heard at the ballot box" and reiterated her support for the bill. Sinema’s spokeswoman Hannah Hurley said the senator’s position remains what she outlined in an op-ed last week, in which Sinema argued eliminating the filibuster to pass the voting bill would weaken the ability of Democrats to stop voting restrictions in the future when they are no longer in the majority.
Democrats, who say the issue is an existential one for democracy and who need the support of voters of color in next year's midterms, quickly condemned the court's decision.
“If you believe in open and fair democracy and the principle of one person, one vote, today is one of the darkest days in all of the Supreme Court’s history," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the ruling an “unprecedented assault” that “greenlights the brutal, accelerating campaign of voter suppression.”
Speaking in Florida, President Joe Biden said he would have "much more to say" soon, but largely sidestepped comment.
For their part, Republicans show no sign of willingness to engage with Democrats on the issue.
“The states created the federal government, and it’s not up to Chuck or Nancy or anyone else in Washington, D.C., to tell Arizona or anyone else how they should conduct an election," Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who was a party in the case, said on Fox News.
Many Republicans other have dismissed a series of recent hearings on the John Lewis bill as “theater.”
“They are using this issue because they see a political opportunity," said Rep. Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican who sits on the House Judiciary Committee. “The more they advance this narrative that it’s us versus them, and oppressors versus the oppressed, and black versus white, it divides the country.”
Questions hang over existing lawsuits challenging voting laws.
While experts generally agree that Thursday’s decision will make legal challenges under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act more difficult, many of the lawsuits pending against GOP-backed laws this year make separate, constitutional claims. So those lawsuits will proceed.
The U.S. Justice Department's recent lawsuit against Georgia’s new voting law does make a Section 2 challenge, although it was narrowly written and alleges an intent by Republican state lawmakers to discriminate against minority voters. In the Arizona case, the legal challenge centered on whether there was a discriminatory effect of the laws.
Still, advocates of voting rights protections were surprised by the breadth of the ruling.
“This ruling is much worse than we had anticipated,” said Wendy Weiser, an attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice. "This is going to put a lot of pressure on Congress and the White House to pass the voting bills.”
And it could embolden more Republican-led states to pursue further restrictions.
Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton, who supports the ruling, said: “States can be confident that they can go full speed ahead to strengthen elections and protect voting rights with security measures such as voter ID and other sensible measures to make it harder to steal elections."