Ninth Circuit Finds Arizona Voting Laws Constitutional

(Brad Kutner/CNS)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Rejecting the Democratic Party’s claim that Arizona voting laws suppress minority voters, the Ninth Circuit on Wednesday upheld two state laws that limit how and where ballots can be cast.

In a split decision, a three judge-panel ruled two state laws that forbid voting out of precinct and submitting ballots on behalf of others pose only a minimal burden on the right to vote.

The Democratic National Committee plans to ask for an en banc rehearing in the case, according to DNC spokeswoman Sabrina Singh.

“We can’t let laws stand when they clearly and unambiguously harm minority voters,” Singh said in an email. “We are planning to seek en banc review so that Arizona voters can have protections in place for the upcoming 2018 elections.”

Writing for the majority, U.S. Circuit Judge Sandra Ikuta held states can pass laws that further legitimate government interests, such as eliminating voter fraud, as long they don’t pose a substantial burden on the right to vote.

In a sharply worded dissent, Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Sidney Thomas denounced the majority’s decision, arguing that applying their reasoning would permit election practices historically used to disenfranchise black, Latino and Native American voters.

“Under the standard applied by the district court, a poll tax or literacy test – facially neutral, evenly applied across racial and ethnic lines – could withstand scrutiny,” Thomas wrote.

The DNC and affiliated groups sued Arizona in April 2016, challenging a 2016 law that makes collecting early ballots from voters a felony punishable by one year in jail and a $150,000 fine.

Get-out-the-vote groups had used ballot collections in Arizona since at least 2002, describing it as one of the most popular and effective tools to boost minority voter turnout.

The DNC also challenged a state law from 1970, which forbids voters from casting ballots outside of their precinct. If voters go the wrong polling place, their vote will not be counted. The Democrats claimed both election policies violate the First, 14th and 15th Amendments, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

After a 10-day bench trial in October 2017, U.S. District Judge Douglas Rayes concluded the burdens imposed on minority voters by those election laws were too minimal to constitute a violation of the Constitution or civil rights.

Ikuta and U.S. Circuit Judge Carlos Bea agreed, finding that because more voters opt for mail-in ballots and skip the polls, out-of-precinct voting restrictions would have a minimal impact on voters and minorities. They also concurred that Arizona lawmakers did not have to show evidence of voter fraud to justify outlawing ballot collections, and that evidence of a partisan motive behind the legislation does not make it unconstitutional.

Thomas strongly disagreed, writing that “partisan self-interest cannot absolve discriminatory intent.”

He added: “If we were to allow racially motivated voting schemes whenever those schemes serve partisan interests, the exception would swallow the rule, and there would be no prohibition on enacting laws in order to discriminate.”

Singh said voter restrictions like those in Arizona are part of a Republican strategy to disenfranchise minority voters.

“Democrats will not let that stand,” she said.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said in an emailed statement the Ninth Circuit ruling was “no big surprise” and that his office will continue to “faithfully defend the law passed by the Legislature.”

 

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