“The Supreme Court is Putting Democracy at Risk”

I have written this guest essay for the New York Times. It begins:

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….

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….

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….

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.

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