Mixed Bag for Voters as Supreme Court Rules on Elections Cases


In addition to the historic Supreme Court decisions on health care and immigration handed down last week, the Court also ruled recently on several important, elections-related cases as well – decisions which constitute a mixed bag for the health of America’s democracy.  

The positive outcomes for voters in SCOTUS cases this year bode particularly well for communities of color and their fair representation in Congress. However, by rejecting a challenge to Citizens United and preventing states from taking their own steps to protect the integrity of their elections, the Supreme Court also ensured that corporations and wealthy individuals will be more emboldened than ever to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens in order to sway elections toward their favored candidates.

Last week, the Supreme Court effectively overturned Arizona’s requirement of voters attempting to register to present proof of citizenship by denying the state’s application to stay a ruling handed down by the Ninth Circuit in April. The ruling held that the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which states that voter registration forms “may not include any requirement for notarization or other formal authentication,” superseded Arizona’s law – invalidating the state’s proof of citizenship requirement in the process.  The law had been touted as a model by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in 2008 and had been supported by notoriously anti-immigrant ex-state Sen. Russell Pearce. According to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), Arizona’s proof of citizenship law had resulted in the rejection of over 30,000 applicants, with thousands more being turned away at the polls for lacking the identification needed under the requirement. Though there is a possibility that Arizona will seek Supreme Court review of the Ninth Circuit decision, last week’s decision increases the likelihood that the Court would deny such a request.

In another Supreme Court decision, the constitutionality of Maryland’s “No Representation Without Population Act,” which counts incarcerated people as residents of their home address for redistricting purposes, was upheld. The groundbreaking Act ended a common practice known as prison-based gerrymandering, in which incarcerated individuals are counted as residents of the town in which their prison is located, resulting in distorted electoral maps that rob prisoners’ home communities – which are disproportionately urban, low-income communities of color – of proper representation. According to Brenda Wright of Demos, “The Court’s decision that Maryland’s law satisfies the strict standards applicable to congressional districts clears the path for other states to pass similar laws at all levels of government.” New York, Delaware, and California have already enacted similar legislation.

However, counterbalancing these decisions, the Court also struck down Montana’s century-old ban on corporate campaign spending, which had been upheld by the State Supreme Court, making it harder for states to mitigate the effects of Citizens United. The ruling, which was issued without hearings or debate, ensures that the predicted $1 billion in campaign spending that experts say will be spent by outside groups on this year’s election will likely become a reality – a figure that dwarfs the $300 million spent by similar groups in 2010. The decision flies in the face of growing opposition to the reality of corporate-owned elections. Rhode Island, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Vermont have recently passed resolutions calling for a federal constitutional amendment in order to reverse Citizens United, with scores of cities and towns following suit. Additionally, eleven attorneys general submitted a letter to Congress in April supporting passage of such an amendment.

Despite the significance of these rulings, an even larger legal battle is looming. In the next term that starts in October, the Supreme Court will consider ruling on the validity of the Voting Rights Act – in particular, its preclearance provision that requires certain states and counties with a history of racial discrimination to obtain federal approval before making changes to how they administer elections. Despite recent instances that demonstrate the need for the requirement – for example, voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina that were denied preclearance by the U.S. Department of Justice on the justifiable grounds that they needlessly disenfranchise minorities – Chief Justice Roberts has questioned its constitutionality.