Justia Election Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
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During his 2018 Senate reelection campaign, Cruz loaned his campaign committee $260,000. Section 304 of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act restricts the use of post-election campaign contributions, 52 U.S.C. 30116(j). Federal Election Commission regulations establish that a campaign may repay up to $250,000 in candidate loans using contributions made at any time and may use pre-election contributions to repay any portion exceeding $250,000 only within 20 days of the election; after that deadline, any portion above $250,000 is treated as a campaign contribution, precluding repayment. The Committee began repaying Cruz’s loans after the 20-day post-election window, leaving $10,000 unpaid. Cruz and the Committee challenged Section 304.The Supreme Court affirmed summary judgment for the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs had standing. An injury resulting from the application or threatened application of an unlawful enactment remains fairly traceable to such application, even if the injury was "willingly incurred." The present inability of the Committee to repay and Cruz to recover the final $10,000 is traceable to Section 304.The loan-repayment limitation abridges First Amendment rights by burdening candidates who wish to make expenditures on behalf of their own candidacy through personal loans. It increases the risk that such loans will not be repaid in full, which deters candidates from making loans. Debt is a ubiquitous tool for financing electoral campaigns, especially for new candidates and challengers. Section 304 raises a barrier to entry. The only permissible ground for restricting political speech is the prevention of “quid pro quo” corruption or its appearance. The government failed to identify a single case of quid pro quo corruption in this context, even though most states do not impose any similar limitations. View "Federal Election Commission v. Cruz" on Justia Law

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The 2020 census revealed that Wisconsin’s State Assembly and Senate districts were no longer equally apportioned. The Governor vetoed new maps passed by the legislature. The Wisconsin Supreme Court invited proposed maps and selected the Governor's proposed maps; the Assembly map created seven majority-black districts—one more than the current map. The court stated there were “good reasons” to think that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), 52 U.S.C. 10301 “may” require the additional majority-black district.The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. Under the Equal Protection Clause, districting maps that sort voters on the basis of race cannot be upheld unless they are narrowly tailored to achieving a compelling state interest, such as compliance with the VRA. Preconditions to demonstrating a VRA violation require showings that the minority group is sufficiently large and compact to constitute a majority in a reasonably configured district, the minority group is politically cohesive, and a majority group votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it to usually defeat the minority group’s preferred candidate. If the preconditions are established, a court considers the totality of circumstances.The Governor’s main explanation for the seventh majority-black district was that there is now a sufficiently large and compact population of black residents to fill it. Strict scrutiny requires more. The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s analysis of the preconditions improperly relied on generalizations and “made virtually no effort” to parse data at the district level or respond to criticisms of expert analysis. The court improperly reduced the totality-of-circumstances analysis to a single factor–proportionality--and failed to address whether a race-neutral alternative that did not add another majority-black district would deny black voters equal political opportunity. View "Wisconsin Legislature v. Wisconsin Elections Commission" on Justia Law

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Arizona voters may cast their ballots on election day in person at a traditional precinct or a “voting center” in their county of residence, may cast an “early ballot” by mail, or may vote in person at an early voting location in each county. Arizonans who vote in person on election day in a county that uses the precinct system must vote in the precinct to which they are assigned based on their address; if a voter votes in the wrong precinct, the vote is not counted. For Arizonans who vote early by mail, Arizona HB 2023 makes it a crime for any person other than a postal worker, an elections official, or a voter’s caregiver, family member, or household member to knowingly collect an early ballot.A suit under section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 52 U.S.C. 10301, challenged Arizona’s refusal to count ballots cast in the wrong precinct and its ballot-collection restriction. The Ninth Circuit invalidated both restrictions. The Supreme Court reversed, characterizing Arizona's restrictions as “generally applicable time, place, or manner” voting rules and declining to apply the disparate-impact model to displace “the totality of circumstances.” The Court also rejected a “least-restrictive means” analysis as having “the potential to invalidate just about any voting rule.”The core of section 2(b) is “equally open” voting. Any circumstance that bears on whether voting is equally open and affords equal “opportunity” may be considered. Voting necessarily requires some effort and compliance with rules. Having to identify one’s polling place and travel there to vote does not exceed the “usual burdens of voting.” A rule’s impact on members of different racial or ethnic groups is important but the existence of some disparity does not necessarily mean that a system is not equally open. A procedure that apparently works for 98% or more of voters to whom it applies, minority and non-minority alike, is unlikely to render a system unequally open. The degree to which a voting rule departs from standard practices is relevant. The policy of not counting out-of-precinct ballots is widespread. The strength of the state interests served by a challenged rule is important. Precinct-based voting helps to distribute voters more evenly, can put polling places closer to voter residences, and helps to ensure that each voter receives a ballot that lists only the relevant candidates and public questions. Courts must consider the state’s entire system of voting; a burden associated with one voting option must be evaluated in the context of the other available means.HB 2023 also passes muster. Arizonans can submit early ballots in several ways. Even if the plaintiffs could demonstrate a disparate burden, Arizona’s “compelling interest in preserving the integrity of its election procedures” would suffice under section 2. Third-party ballot collection can lead to pressure and intimidation and a state may take action to prevent election fraud without waiting for it to occur within its own borders. View "Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee" on Justia Law

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Delaware’s Constitution contains a political balance requirement for appointments to the state’s major courts. No more than a bare majority of judges on any of its five major courts “shall be of the same political party.” Art. IV, section 3. On three of those courts, those members not in the bare majority “shall be of the other major political party.” Adams, a Delaware lawyer and political independent, sued, claiming that those requirements violate his First Amendment right to freedom of association by making him ineligible to become a judge unless he joins a major political party.The Supreme Court held that because Adams has not shown that he was “able and ready” to apply for a judicial vacancy in the imminent future, he failed to show a “personal,” “concrete,” and “imminent” injury necessary for Article III standing. A grievance that amounts to nothing more than abstract and generalized harm to a citizen’s interest in the proper application of the law is not an “injury in fact.” Adams must at least show that he is likely to apply to become a judge in the reasonably foreseeable future if not barred because of political affiliation. Adams’ only supporting evidence is his statements that he wanted to be, and would apply to be, a judge on any of Delaware’s courts. The evidence fails to show that, when he filed suit, Adams was “able and ready” to apply for a judgeship in the reasonably foreseeable future. Adams’ statements lack supporting evidence, like efforts to determine possible judicial openings or other preparations. Adams did not apply for numerous existing judicial vacancies while he was a registered Democrat. He then read a law review article arguing that Delaware’s judicial eligibility requirements unconstitutionally excluded independents, changed his political affiliation, and filed suit. View "Carney v. Adams" on Justia Law

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When Americans cast ballots for presidential candidates, their votes actually go toward selecting members of the Electoral College, whom each state appoints based on the popular returns. With limited exceptions, states appoint a slate of electors selected by the political party whose candidate has won the state’s popular vote. Most states compel electors to pledge to support that party's nominee and remove a “faithless elector” from his position; a few impose a monetary fine on any elector who flouts his pledge.Three Washington electors violated their pledges to support Hillary Clinton in 2016 and were fined $1,000 apiece. The Electors challenged their fines, arguing that the Constitution gives members of the Electoral College the right to vote however they please. The Washington Supreme Court rejected their claims.The Supreme Court affirmed. A state may enforce an elector’s pledge to support his party’s nominee—and the state voters’ choice—for President. Article II, Section 1 gives the states the authority to appoint electors “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” The power to appoint an elector includes the power to condition his appointment, including requiring that electors pledge to cast their Electoral College ballots for the party’s presidential nominee. States can demand that an elector actually live up to that pledge, on pain of penalty.Nothing in the Constitution expressly prohibits states from taking away presidential electors’ voting discretion. Article II’s use of the term “electors” and the Twelfth Amendment’s requirement that the electors “vote,” “by ballot,” do not establish that electors must have discretion. From the first elections under the Constitution, states sent electors to the College to vote for pre-selected candidates, rather than to use their own judgment. The electors rapidly settled into that non-discretionary role. Ratified at the start of the 19th century, the Twelfth Amendment acknowledged and facilitated the Electoral College’s emergence as a mechanism not for deliberation but for party-line voting. View "Chiafalo v. Washington" on Justia Law

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Reversing the Tenth Circuit, the Court held that states may impose a sanction on "faithless electors" who pledge to vote for the nominee of their political party in the presidential election and fail to do so. The Court cited its contemporaneous opinion, Chiafalo v. Washington. View "Colorado Dept. of State v. Baca" on Justia Law

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To slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wisconsin’s Governor ordered Wisconsinites to stay at home until April 24. An unprecedented number of voters requested absentee ballots for the state’s spring election, resulting in a severe backlog of ballots not promptly mailed to voters. Plaintiffs, including the Democratic party, sued the Wisconsin Elections Commission and, on April 2, obtained a preliminary injunction that extended the deadline for voters to request absentee ballots and extended the deadline for election officials to receive completed absentee ballots.On the day before the April 7 election, the Supreme Court stayed the preliminary injunction to the extent it required Wisconsin to count absentee ballots postmarked after April 7. The Court declined to address “the wisdom of” proceeding with the scheduled election, opting to answer “a narrow, technical question.” While the deadline for the municipal clerks to receive absentee ballots is extended to April 13, those ballots must be mailed and postmarked by election day.The plaintiffs had not asked that the court allow ballots postmarked after election day to be counted; the court unilaterally ordered that such ballots be counted if received by April 13. That extension would fundamentally alter the nature of the election and would afford relief that the plaintiffs did not seek. In its order enjoining the public release of any election results for six days after election day, the district court essentially enjoined nonparties. The Court noted no evidence that voters who requested absentee ballots at the last minute would be in a substantially different position from late-requesting voters in other Wisconsin elections with respect to receiving ballots; the deadline for receiving ballots was extended to ensure that their votes count. The Court declined to express an opinion on whether other election procedure modifications are appropriate in light of COVID–19. View "Republican National Committee v. Democratic National Committee" on Justia Law

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Alaska law limits the amount an individual can contribute to a candidate for political office, or to an election-oriented group other than a political party, to $500 per year. Alaska Stat. 15.13.070(b)(1). Plaintiffs contributed the maximum amounts permitted but wanted to contribute more. They challenged the limits under the First Amendment. The district court and Ninth Circuit upheld the statute as furthering a “sufficiently important state interest” and “closely drawn” to that end. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded, citing its precedent in Randall v. Sorrell (2006), which invalidated a Vermont law that limited individual contributions on a per-election basis to $400 to a candidate for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, or other statewide office, $300 to a candidate for state senator, and $200 to a candidate for state representative. A contribution limit that is too low can “prove an obstacle to the very electoral fairness it seeks to promote.” Alaska’s $500 individual-to-candidate contribution limit is substantially lower than limits that have previously been upheld; the individual-to-candidate contribution limit is substantially lower than comparable limits in other states. Alaska’s $500 contribution limit applies uniformly to all offices while other states have limits above $500 for candidates for Governor and Lieutenant Governor. Alaska’s contribution limit is not adjusted for inflation and is the same as it was 23 years ago. View "Thompson v. Hebdon" on Justia Law

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North Carolina plaintiffs claimed that the state’s congressional districting plan discriminated against Democrats. Maryland plaintiffs claimed that their state’s plan discriminated against Republicans. The plaintiffs cited the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause, the Elections Clause, and Article I, section 2. The district courts ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. The Supreme Court vacated, finding that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts because they lack “judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving [them].” Citing the history of partisan gerrymandering, the Court stated that the Constitution assigns electoral districting problems to the state legislatures, expressly checked and balanced by the Federal Congress, with no suggestion that the federal courts had a role to play. “To hold that legislators cannot take their partisan interests into account when drawing district lines would essentially countermand the Framers’ decision to entrust districting to political entities.” The Constitution does not require proportional representation, and federal courts are neither equipped nor authorized to apportion political power as a matter of fairness. Deciding among the different visions of fairness poses basic questions that are political, not legal. There are no legal standards discernible in the Constitution for making such judgments. The Court distinguished one-person-one-vote and racial gerrymandering cases as susceptible to legal standards. Any assertion that partisan gerrymanders violate the core right of voters to choose their representatives is more likely grounded in the Guarantee Clause, which “guarantee[s] to every State in [the] Union a Republican Form of Government.” That Clause does not provide the basis for a justiciable claim. View "Rucho v. Common Cause" on Justia Law

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After the 2010 census, Virginia redrew legislative districts for its Senate and House of Delegates. Voters sued, claiming racial gerrymandering. The House of Delegates intervened. The district court held that 11 districts were unconstitutionally drawn, enjoined Virginia from conducting elections for those districts before adopting a new plan, and gave the General Assembly several months to adopt that plan. Virginia’s Attorney General announced that the state would not appeal.The Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by the House for lack of standing. To establish standing, a litigant must show a concrete and particularized injury, that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct and is likely to be redressed by a favorable decision. Standing must be met at every stage of the litigation. To appeal a decision that the primary party does not challenge, an intervenor must independently demonstrate standing. The state itself had standing to appeal, and could have designated agents to do so, but did not designate the House to represent its interests. Under Virginia law, authority to represent the state’s interests in civil litigation rests exclusively with its Attorney General. The House has consistently purported to represent only its own interests and lacks standing to appeal in its own right. A judicial decision invalidating a state law does not inflict a discrete, cognizable injury on each organ of government that participated in the law’s passage. Virginia’s Constitution allocates redistricting authority to the “General Assembly,” of which the House constitutes only a part. The issue is the constitutionality of a concededly enacted redistricting plan, not the results of the chamber’s poll or the validity of any counted or uncounted vote. Redrawing district lines may affect the chamber’s membership, but the House as an institution has no cognizable interest in the identity of its members. View "Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill" on Justia Law