Cases & Deals

Arizona Republican Party obtains landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision

Clients Arizona Republican Party

In a landmark decision on July 1, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of Jones Day’s client, the Arizona Republican Party, by upholding Arizona’s ban on ballot harvesting and its rule that in-person voters must cast ballots in their assigned precincts. This is the first time the Supreme Court has interpreted the “results test” of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act in the context of rules governing the time, place, and manner of voting.

Arizona, like many other states, bans the practice of ballot harvesting by limiting third-party collection of absentee ballots. The state also requires voters who vote in-person on Election Day to do so at their assigned precinct. Three Democratic Party organizations challenged these laws under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 2 prohibits any law that “results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race.” The plaintiffs argued that the challenged laws violate Section 2 because minorities had their ballots harvested and voted in the wrong precinct at higher rates than white voters. The plaintiffs also claimed that the Arizona legislature enacted the ballot-harvesting ban with discriminatory intent.

The district court rejected plaintiffs’ claims. The court held that plaintiffs did not prove that either the ballot-harvesting ban or out-of-precinct policy would result in minorities having unequal opportunities to vote. The court also found that the ballot-collection law was not enacted with discriminatory intent, but was instead motivated by a sincere concern with combatting voter fraud.

A panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed. But an en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit later reversed. The en banc majority concluded that the challenged laws imposed a forbidden disparate impact on minority voters and that the ballot-harvesting ban was motivated by discriminatory intent.

The Supreme Court reversed and upheld both Arizona laws. Justice Alito, writing for the majority, emphasized that the “touchstone” of the Section 2 inquiry is whether the voting process is “equally open” to all voters. He identified several relevant factors, including whether the state’s voting rules impose anything more than the “usual burdens of voting,” and whether the burdens are significantly greater than those that were commonplace and widely accepted when the Section 2 “results” test was enacted in 1982. The Court concluded that, in light of the modest burdens imposed by the laws and Arizona’s justifications for them, they did not violate Section 2.

The Court also reversed the Ninth Circuit’s holding that the Arizona legislature enacted the ballot-harvesting ban with discriminatory intent. The Court held that there was ample support in the record for the district court to conclude that Arizona legislators were motivated by a desire to prevent ballot fraud, not by discriminatory motives.

Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, No. 19-1257 (U.S.); Democratic National Committee, et al. v. Hobbs, et al., No. 18-15845 (9th Cir.); Democratic National Committee v. Reagan, No. 16-cv-01065 (D. Ariz.)