During these trying times of a global public health crisis, Wisconsin and the courts have failed to protect voters. The Supreme Court refused to extend the deadline for absentee ballots in Wisconsin’s election last Tuesday. This election included the Democratic presidential primary, as well as an important seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court and numerous state and local judgeships. When Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers issued an executive order postponing its in-person voting to June 9, just hours later, the state Supreme Court sided with Republican legislative leaders and overturned the order.
Evers attempted to protect his citizens a second time by giving voters more time to secure and send in their absentee ballots because the state was unable to accommodate for the sudden high demand for absentee ballots in a timely manner. On the same day, the Supreme Court split along ideological lines to roll back this absentee-ballot extension. Overturning this order, the Supreme Court required absentee ballots to be postmarked by April 7, so voters that had not received their absentee ballot needed to vote in-person.
The Supreme Court forced Wisconsin voters to choose between voting and staying safe — an overwhelming number seemed willing to risk their own life in order to ensure their voice is heard in our democracy.
Along with being extremely detrimental to the legitimacy of our elections, this refusal to extend this basic courtesy to voters reflects Chief Justice Roberts’ cramped view on voting rights. Throughout his long career, Roberts has been eager to favor Republican interests by curbing voting rights, especially for minorities and the poor. As a young lawyer, Roberts first revealed his narrow interpretations of anti-discrimination laws in memos and other writings between 1981 and 1992 — he wrote upwards of 25 memos opposing a test for voting discrimination for Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits drawing election districts in ways that would dilute minorities’ voting power. He articulated the Reagan Justice Department’s stand against what he called “reverse discrimination.”
While most people adopt evolving views with time as they are exposed to better information, Roberts holds the same views on voting rights at 65 as he did at 25. Roberts wrote his most infamous opinion on this issue in 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder, which destroyed a provision of the VRA that required states with a history of racial bias to clear any electoral requirements with the Department of Justice or a federal court. Roberts wrote that conditions “have changed in the South. Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.” Yet, soon after, states previously covered by the VRA were removing voters off their registry more than jurisdictions not covered, as well as imposing stricter voter ID laws, curtailing early voting and eliminating same-day registration — measures all designed to disenfranchise people.
Roberts is not alone. During his tenure on the High Court, he has consistently had four conservatives to support his strict voting-rights views. As seen in the Wisconsin case, many of these voting-rights issues have been instigated by Republican officials seeking support from the Supreme Court.
Despite this seemingly obvious connection between Roberts’ political leanings and his constant support for conservative interpretations of voting rights, he has also been the loudest advocate of the apolitical court. Notably, during his confirmation hearing, Roberts stated that his job is to “call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.” In 2016, he said the Court does not “work as Democrats or Republicans,” and repeated this sentiment in 2018 that “we do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges.” This insistence, along with his unique pulse on public opinion, has caused people to openly speculate if Roberts could be the new moderate of the Court. His spurning of partisan accusations and his famous 2012 decision that saved the Affordable Care Act put hope in people’s hearts that Roberts could block the wave of legal conservatism. Others have written that Roberts may even be transforming into a secret liberal.
But our fantasies of a nonpartisan Chief Justice have once again been shattered with the most recent Wisconsin case. Roberts cannot be bothered to change his strict, deeply-conservative views on voting rights to accommodate for even a global pandemic. As Justice Sotomayor wrote in her dissenting opinion in Abbot v. Perez, a case where the Court upheld several Texas legislative districts that discriminated against Hispanic voters, “our democracy rests on the ability for all individuals, regardless of race, income, or status, to exercise their right to vote.” But Roberts doesn’t care. Fifty years after the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act, and thirty-five years after he first began working to dismantle it, Roberts remains at the front of the conservative movement to weaken voting rights across the nation.
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