A new U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding voting restrictions in Arizona could serve as a “green light” empowering further crackdowns on ballot access across the country, the Bay State’s top elections official warned on Thursday.

Secretary of State William Galvin and other top Massachusetts Democrats slammed the court ruling and ramped up calls for Democrats in Congress to press forward on voting reforms that have stalled in the face of filibuster threats.

In a 6-3 decision, the court ruled that Republican-backed Arizona laws rejecting ballots cast in the wrong precinct and banning third parties from returning mail-in ballots on behalf of voters do not run afoul of anti-racial discrimination protections in the Voting Rights Act.

Galvin told the News Service that he believes the decision, which Republican leaders called a victory for election integrity, is “basically driving a large hole through the Voting Rights Act.”

“This is a green light to Republican legislatures around the country to go ahead and further restrict the rights of people to vote,” Galvin said. “There’s no other way to look at it.”

He urged congressional Democrats to act “immediately” to enshrine a national right to vote by mail in federal elections without any reason or excuse, saying they should push it through with a tiebreaking Senate vote from Vice President Kamala Harris or by using the budget reconciliation process if necessary.

Congress has been paralyzed for months over voting rights bills, sometimes referred to as the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, that have not earned enough Republican support to secure a filibuster-proof majority of 60 senators.

While Galvin said he supports more substantial changes such as automatic voter registration, he cautioned that Democrats must recalibrate their goals to secure at least a national vote-by-mail guarantee.

“The Democratic majority is not in a position to hold out for things they can’t get and risk the possibility that voters are going to lose their right to vote in 2022 and beyond,” Galvin said. “It’s too late now to say that, ‘well, we’re going to hold out for that perfect bill,’ unless you’re going to get rid of the filibuster, which does not appear to be going to happen.”

The decision lands as many Republican-controlled state legislatures move to erect stricter barriers around voting, fueled in some cases by debunked claims of fraud during the 2020 election that President Joe Biden won.

“It would be disingenuous to say this isn’t a partisan issue,” Galvin later added. “Republican majorities in legislatures have enacted statutes on the pretext of alleged fraud that didn’t exist.”

Massachusetts lawmakers and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker embraced early voting and mail-in voting during the pandemic but the Legislature this week let the laws governing such voting lapse, and have not outlined plans to reinstate them.

The ruling drew praise from politicians and groups on the right. MassGOP Chairman Jim Lyons said in a brief statement that the decision is “an important victory for election law integrity.”

“Among the benefits of today’s SCOTUS’ decision is that states can impose their own voter laws without burdening federal overreach,” said Paul Craney, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican, celebrated the court’s decision, calling it “a win for election integrity safeguards in Arizona and across the country.”

“Fair elections are the cornerstone of our republic and they start with rational laws that protect both the right to vote and the accuracy of the results,” Brnovich said in a statement published by the Republican Attorneys General Association.

Both of the Bay State’s U.S. senators, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, have supported eliminating the filibuster. Markey on Thursday reiterated that call and also urged his colleagues to add justices to the Supreme Court who would be nominated by Biden. The justices in the majority on Thursday were all appointed by Republican presidents.

“Today’s ruling is another blow to voting rights,” Markey tweeted. “We have no time to waste to protect the right to vote. We must abolish the filibuster and pass the For the People Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Act. And we must expand the Supreme Court.”

While she did not echo Markey’s call to pack the court, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey also urged Congress to move quickly on voting rights legislation in the wake of what she described as a ruling that “makes it harder to fight discriminatory voting policies.”

“Voting restrictions pose a mounting threat to our democracy,” Healey, a Democrat, said in a statement. “Voter ID laws, long lines, and other discriminatory policies are taken from the same playbook as Jim Crow. All of us — elected officials, business leaders, activists, voters — need to rise up for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act. We cannot rest while the freedom to vote is threatened.”

The decision could also ramp up pressure on Beacon Hill legislative leaders, who have been unable for weeks to agree on extending pandemic-era mail-in and early voting measures, to pursue broader electoral reforms in Massachusetts.

Advocacy group MassVOTE renewed its calls Thursday for the Legislature to pursue a suite of changes including same-day voter registration, permanent no-excuse mail-in voting, and jail-based voting access.

“With voting rights under attack nation-wide, Massachusetts must stand strong by making the voting process as accessible and inclusive as possible, especially for Black and brown, low-income, immigrant, and young voters,” MassVOTE said in a statement.

But Galvin, who himself has supported many of those proposals, said he believes the focus should be turned squarely on Congress.

“Many Republicans voted by mail here in Massachusetts. They enjoyed it and they appreciated it, so I’m not worried about its impact here,” he said. “I am concerned about its impact on the rest of the country, and it’s very obvious that this is opening the door to a lot of problems.”

The case before the nation’s highest court concerned two election laws in Arizona that the Democratic National Committee had challenged, alleging that they created disparate negative impacts for people of color.

One law rejected any ballots cast in the wrong precinct, which Galvin said is “similar” to Massachusetts restrictions on provisional ballots.

In the majority’s opinion released Thursday, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that slightly more than 1 percent of Hispanic, African American and Native American voters who voted on Election Day in 2016 had an out-of-precinct ballot dismissed, compared to 0.5 percent of non-minority voters. Those “very small differences” across demographic lines, he said, “should not be artificially magnified.”

“Arizona’s out-of-precinct rule enforces the requirement that voters who choose to vote in person on election day must do so in their assigned precincts,” Alito wrote. “Having to identify one’s own polling place and then travel there to vote does not exceed the ‘usual burdens of voting.'”

The other law the court upheld prohibits most third parties, excluding authorized proxies such as caregivers and family members, from collecting and returning early ballots on behalf of voters. Advocates contend that practice known as “ballot harvesting” plays an important role in boosting election access for communities of color where mail moves slowly or travel to a ballot drop-off location is challenging.

Galvin said Massachusetts has a “more liberal policy” governing who can return ballots not cast at a polling place, but he stressed that candidates are explicitly banned from collecting ballots from voters.

Former state Rep. Stephen “Stat” Smith, an Everett Democrat, resigned on Jan. 1, 2013 after agreeing to plead guilty to casting invalid absentee ballots.

(Copyright (c) 2024 State House News Service.

Join our Newsletter for the latest news right to your inbox