Opinion | We Still Have to Worry About the Supreme Court and Elections

When the Supreme Court on Monday rejected Pennsylvania Republicans’ after-the-fact effort to invalidate late-arriving mailed ballots, it was tempting to suppose that the country’s courthouse doors had finally closed on this most litigated of presidential elections.

If only it were that simple.

True, in denying the Republicans’ petitions, the court didn’t issue an opinion. Of the four votes necessary to accept a case, these two cases (treated by the court as one) garnered only three. So for the official record, the only outcome in Republican Party of Pennsylvania v. DeGraffenreid and in Corman v. Pennsylvania Democratic Party was “denied.”

But the three justices who would have accepted the cases — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch — issued dissenting opinions that provide both a road map and a rationale for the Supreme Court’s future intervention in the quintessentially state matter of how to conduct elections.

Remember Bush v. Gore, the case that decided the 2000 presidential election, in which five justices voted to overturn the Florida Supreme Court’s handling of a statewide recount? That decision was based on a theory of equal protection so wacky that the majority opinion insisted that “our consideration is limited to the present circumstances” — that is to say, don’t dare invoke this poor excuse for an opinion as a precedent.

That didn’t stop Justice Thomas from citing Bush v. Gore in his dissenting opinion on Monday, and he did so in a particularly shameless fashion. The language he cited wasn’t even from the Bush v. Gore majority opinion, but rather from a separate concurring opinion filed in that case by only three of the majority justices, who argued that the Florida Supreme Court had violated the U.S. Constitution by substituting its will for that of the state Legislature. Justice Thomas invoked that minority portion of the decision to assert that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was constitutionally out of bounds when, citing both the Covid-19 pandemic and the collapse of the Postal Service as its reasons, it added three postelection days for lawful receipt of mailed ballots.

He went on to warn that fraud was “more prevalent with mail-in ballots,” citing as evidence a 1994 Federal District Court case, an article in this newspaper from 2012 and the 2018 Republican ballot-harvesting fraud in North Carolina. Such occurrences, he said, raise “the likelihood that courts will be asked to adjudicate questions that go to the heart of election confidence.” This was the reason, he argued, that the Supreme Court should have taken and decided the Pennsylvania cases before the next election cycle.

In his inventory of ballot fraud, Justice Thomas of course could not refer to fraud in the 2020 election, because there wasn’t any. Not a problem:

We are fortunate that many of the cases we have seen alleged only improper rule changes, not fraud. But that observation provides only small comfort. An election free from strong evidence of systemic fraud is not alone sufficient for election confidence. Also important is the assurance that fraud will not go undetected.

In other words, Justice Thomas would have it both ways: If there was fraud, the court needed to intervene, and if there was no fraud, the court needed to intervene because the fraud might simply be undetected. Despite his disclaimer, the entire structure of his opinion, suggesting that something bad had happened even if no one could prove it, is fairly read as validating the essence of the Trump narrative.

Justice Alito, in a separate dissenting opinion that Justice Gorsuch also signed, was more circumspect about the fraud issue. His emphasis was the urgency of stopping state courts from substituting their judgment for that of the legislatures. He said that even though the election was over and late ballots were too few to have made a difference in Pennsylvania’s vote totals, state courts could be expected to behave in the same way in the future unless the Supreme Court used this occasion to stop them.

There are several things to note about the Pennsylvania cases. The most obvious is the absence of a fourth vote. In an initial round in the Pennsylvania cases, in mid-October, Justice Brett Kavanaugh had provided Justices Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch with a fourth vote to grant a stay of the state court decision. But a stay requires five votes rather than four. With Amy Coney Barrett not yet confirmed, the eight justices divided 4 to 4, and the stay was denied without opinions. Justice Kavanaugh withheld his vote on Monday, without explanation. Maybe he decided this was a propitious time to offer some cover for Chief Justice John Roberts, who has voted in nearly all the election cases this fall with the three remaining liberal justices.

Justice Barrett was also silent. During her confirmation hearing, Senate Democrats had pressed her to promise recusal from any election cases, given that President Donald Trump had said he needed a prompt replacement for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg so that he would have a majority of justices voting his way in any election disputes. Justice Barrett did not recuse herself from the Pennsylvania case. Perhaps her decision not to provide the fourth vote her dissenting colleagues needed was a kind of de facto recusal, in recognition that the optics of voting to hear a last-ditch Trump appeal would be awkward, to say the least.

The deeper question raised by Monday’s development is why Justices Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch are so intent on what would seem to be a counterintuitive goal for conservatives: curbing the power of state courts. I’m cynical enough to think it has to do with how these three understand the position of state legislatures and state courts in today’s political climate. It’s been widely reported that Republican-controlled legislatures are rolling out bills by the dozens to restrict access to the polls, aimed at discouraging the kind of turnout that produced Democratic victories in Georgia last month. The vote-suppression effort has become so aggressive that some Republicans are starting to worry about voter backlash, according to a recent Washington Post article.

State courts, on the other hand, are capable of standing in the way of this strategy. When state high-court judges are elected, as they are in many states, they typically run in statewide races that are not subject to the gerrymandering that has entrenched Republican power in states that are much more balanced politically than the makeup of their legislatures reflects. What better way to disable the state courts in their democracy-protecting role than to push them to the sidelines when it comes to federal elections.

So there is no way the Supreme Court is finished with elections. Next Tuesday, as it happens, the justices will hear a crucial voting rights case. The case, from Arizona, asks the court to decide for the first time how Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 applies to policies that restrict the vote, through such measures as voter ID requirements.

Section 2, which pertains nationwide, is the major remaining provision of the Voting Rights Actfollowing the Supreme Court’s dismantling of the act’s Section 5, in the 2013 Shelby County case. That section barred certain states and smaller jurisdictions from making changes in their election procedures without first receiving federal permission, known as “preclearance.” Section 5 provided vital protection in parts of the country where racism had not released its grip on the levers of power.

The issue now is whether Section 2 can be deployed to fill that gap. It prohibits any voting practice that “results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” It has typically been used to challenge redistricting plans that dilute the electoral power of racial and ethnic minorities. The question of whether it can be useful in challenging the wave of vote-suppression schemes, which can present complex problems of proof, hands the justices arguably the most important civil rights case of their current term.

With the country exhausted and still reeling from the turmoil of the 2020 election and its bizarre aftermath, the urge not to think about elections for a while is powerful. I share it. But it’s a luxury the Supreme Court hasn’t given us, not now, not as long as some justices have more to say.

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