In two disturbing rulings closing out the Supreme Court’s term, the court’s six-justice conservative majority, over the loud protests of its three-liberal minority, has shown itself hostile to American democracy.
In one case, Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the court has weakened the last remaining legal tool for protecting minority voters in federal courts from a new wave of legislation seeking to suppress the vote that is emanating from Republican-controlled states. In the other, Americans for Prosperity v. Bonta, the court has laid the groundwork for lower courts to strike down campaign finance disclosure laws and laws that limit campaign contributions to federal, state and local candidates.
The court is putting our democratic form of government at risk not only in these two decisions but in its overall course over the past few decades.
Let’s begin with voting rights. In Brnovich, the court, in an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, held that two Arizona rules — one that does not count votes for any office cast by a voter in the wrong precinct and another that prevents third-party collection of absentee ballots (sometimes pejoratively referred to by Donald Trump and his allies as ballot harvesting) — do not violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
Section 2 is supposed to guarantee that minority voters have the same opportunity as other voters to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice. The evidence presented to the court showed that minority voters were much more likely to have their votes thrown out than white voters for out-of-precinct voting and that Native Americans — because many live on large reservations — were less likely to vote in the absence of help with ballot collection.
That the conservative majority of justices on the Supreme Court found that these rules did not violate Section 2 is unsurprising. Compared to other laws making it harder to register and to vote, such as strict voter identification provisions, these were relatively tame. In fact, some voting rights lawyers were unhappy that the Democratic National Committee pushed this case aggressively; minority voters have had some success using Section 2 in the lower courts, even getting the very conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to strike down Texas’ voter ID law, one of the strictest in the nation. The concern was that the Supreme Court would mess up this track for protecting voting rights.
And mess it up it did. The real significance of Brnovich is what the court says about how Section 2 applies to suppressive voting rules. Rather than focus on whether a law has a disparate impact on minority voters, as Justice Elena Kagan urged in her dissent, the court put a huge thumb on the scale in favor of restrictive state voting rules.
Thanks to Brnovich, a state can now assert an interest in preventing fraud to justify a law without proving that fraud is actually a serious risk, but at the same time, minority voters have a high burden: They must show that the state has imposed more than the “usual burdens of voting.” Justice Alito specifically referred to voting laws in effect in 1982 as the benchmark, a period when early and absentee voting were scarce and registration was much more onerous in many states.
It is hard to see what laws would be so burdensome that they would flunk the majority’s lax test. A ban on Sunday voting despite African American and other religious voters doing “souls to the polls” drives after church? New strict identification requirements for those voting by mail? More frequent voter purges? All would probably be OK under the court’s new test as long as there are still some opportunities for minority citizens to vote — somewhere, somehow.
What’s worse, the court did not decide Brnovich in a vacuum but after two other significant decisions that undermined the fight against restrictive voting rules. In a 2008 decision, Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, the court again put a thumb on the scale favoring a state’s restrictive laws when it upheld Indiana’s voter identification law against an argument that it violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. And in the infamous 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case, the court killed off the part of the Voting Rights Act that required states and other jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting to get approval before they could adopt laws that could burden minority voters.
We were assured back then not to worry about the loss of this preclearance provision because there was always Section 2 to fall back on. So much for that. There are now fewer and fewer tools with which to fight suppressive voting rules in the federal courts.
And Justice Alito ended with a shot across the bow for Congress, should it consider amending the Voting Rights Act to provide an easier standard for minority plaintiffs to meet, such as Justice Kagan’s disparate impact test in dissent. Such a test, he wrote, would “deprive the states of their authority to establish nondiscriminatory voting rules,” potentially in violation of the Constitution.
The news on the campaign finance front is almost as dire. In the Americans for Prosperity case, the court considered a law that required charities to disclose their donors in reports filed with the government of California. The state wanted the information for law enforcement purposes, to ferret out fraud by charities, and by law, the information was not supposed to be publicly released. Unfortunately, California had leaks, and some of the information was disclosed. The groups challenging the law said compelled disclosure of their donors violated their First Amendment rights. They put forth evidence that their donors faced danger of harassment if they were revealed. The court had long held that those who face such a danger can be exempt from disclosure rules.
Once again, it is unsurprising that this particular conservative majority on the Supreme Court sided with these conservative charities. And had the court said only that California’s law as applied to those facing a threat of harassment was unconstitutional, it would have been no big deal. But the majority opinion, by Chief Justice John Roberts, is much more troubling. The court held the disclosure law could not be applied to anyone, even those not facing a risk of harassment. He also rejiggered the First Amendment standards to call many other laws into question.
In the Americans for Prosperity case, he redefined the “exacting scrutiny” standard to judge the constitutionality of disclosure laws so that the government must show its law is “narrowly tailored” to an important government interest. This makes it more like strict scrutiny and more likely that disclosure laws will be struck down. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, “Today’s analysis marks reporting and disclosure requirements with a bull’s-eye.”
The court’s ruling calls into question a number of campaign finance disclosure laws. Perhaps even more significant, it also threatens the constitutionality of campaign contribution laws, which are judged under the “exacting scrutiny” standard, too. Lower courts can now find that such laws are not narrowly tailored to prevent corruption or its appearance or do not provide voters with valuable information — two interests the court recognized in the past to justify campaign laws. A requirement to disclose a $200 contribution? A $500 campaign contribution limit? Plaintiffs in future cases are likely to argue that a law targeting small contributions for disclosure or imposing low contribution limits are not “narrowly tailored” enough to deter corruption or give voters valuable information, even if Congress or a state or municipality found such laws necessary.
And that’s a key point. As in Shelby County and in the 2010 Citizens United case, which struck down Congress’s limit on corporate campaign spending, this conservative Supreme Court in today’s rulings shows no deference to democracy-enhancing laws passed by Congress, states or local governments.
Justice Kagan’s Brnovich dissent is passionate about the majority’s failure to defer to Congress’s determination that minority voters need protection. Instead, the majority showed undue deference to democracy-reducing laws passed by states and localities.
If you put the Brnovich and Americans for Prosperity cases together, the court is making it easier for states to pass repressive voting laws and easier for undisclosed donors and big money to influence election outcomes.
It is too much to ask for the Supreme Court to be the main protector of American democracy. But it should not be too much to ask that the court not be one of the major impediments.
Richard L. Hasen (@rickhasen) is a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of “Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust and the Threat to American Democracy.”
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