Just over a week after the death of Antonin Scalia, legal experts are seeing signs that a newly configured supreme court may lead to a modest expansion of voting rights after years of setbacks. Although a new justice is unlikely to be appointed before election day, a court deadlocked between four conservatives and four liberals could still have a significant effect during a presidential election year in which activists on both sides of the partisan divide will be banging on the door of the country’s highest court to settle disputes over restrictive voting rules and racial discrimination. “It’s starting pretty much immediately,” said Dan Tokaji, an election law specialist at Ohio State University’s Moritz School of Law. “You’re going to start seeing cases challenging voting rules like you do in every election … These cases tended to be decided on a 5-4 vote, so Justice Scalia’s absence could be very important.”
Already last Friday, the supreme court declined to get involved in a gerrymandering case from North Carolina where, before Scalia’s death, many experts would have expected the justices to intervene and put the case on hold. Instead, the Republican-dominated state legislature there is having to abide by an appeals court ruling and redraw two particularly misshapen congressional districts that they deliberately packed with African American voters to diminish their impact.
This year is likely to see many challenges and much legal wrangling over voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting, bans on same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting – all mechanisms that tend to suppress voting that Republican legislatures have passed to some degree in more than a dozen states.
Unlike 2014, however, when the supreme court intervened in four states – Ohio, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Texas – to delay or reverse court challenges to these new laws, the justices are now more likely to stand pat. At the same time, voting rights activists may now be emboldened to petition the court to intervene in the opposite direction in states where they believe suppressive state laws are denying people’s fundamental rights.