How the Supreme Court is already influencing the November midterm elections

From rulings on voting restrictions approved after the 2020 election to rethinking the Voting Rights Act, federal courts are having a big impact on voting.

John Fritze
  • One of the Supreme Court's first major cases this fall deals with redistricting.
  • The high court will also decide how much power state legislatures have to set election rules.

WASHINGTON – The justices of the Supreme Court often view themselves as steering clear of politics. But steering clear of elections? That's not really an option.

The nation's highest court is already having a big impact on this year's midterm elections, in which control of Congress is up for grabs along with governorships in more than half the states. And the court's docket for the term that begins in October is all but certain to have major repercussions for the next presidential election in 2024.

None of the cases quite rise to the level of Bush v. Gore, the historic 2000 decision in which the court ended the recounting of ballots in Florida – settling that contentious election. But the decisions will nevertheless affect voters in ways big and small.

Voters cast their ballots during the primary election on August 23, 2022 in New York.

What's the latest? 

► When the Supreme Court reconvenes next month, one of the first cases it will consider deals with how states weigh the racial makeup of voters when redrawing congressional boundaries. The outcome of the case could weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits states from diluting minority voting power through redistricting.

► A 2006 decision by the Supreme Court, meanwhile, is having an uneven effect on election cases in lower courts – including some that deal with redistricting and others that involve voting restrictions enacted in the wake of the 2020 election. In the 2006 case, the justices signaled that courts shouldn't tinker with the rules of an election at the last minute, an idea that became known as the Purcell principle. 

► Aside from dealing with underlying questions about the Voting Rights Act and the Purcell principle, the high court's decisions are having a practical impact on congressional maps used for the midterms. In February, a 5-4 majority allowed Alabama to rely on the congressional map that a lower court said likely denied Black voters in that state an additional member in the U.S. House of Representatives. A month later, it tossed out a map of Wisconsin's state legislative districts that included an additional majority-Black district. 

In June, the Supreme Court blocked a lower court ruling that required Louisiana to redraw congressional districts to increase Black voting power.

Poll workers check in voters as they prepare to cast their ballots at a polling station setup in a fire station on August 23, 2022 in Miami Beach, Florida.

Why it matters 

If lower federal courts decline to block voting restrictions approved following the 2020 election because it is now too close to the midterms to change the rules of the road, it means those rules will be in place for the election in November. So laws that restrict the use of ballot drop boxes, for instance, will remain in place this fall even if those laws are invalidated at some later point. Supporters of the laws say they ensure election integrity. Opponents say they make it harder for many Americans to vote. 

Purcell:Time is running out to block voting restrictions ahead of 2022 midterms, experts say

Also at stake: Just how much power the Voting Rights Act still has to prevent racial discrimination. Signed by President Lyndon Johnson, the act was widely hailed as a big step toward political equality. Associate Justice Elena Kagan recently opined that if "a single statute represents the best of America, it is the Voting Rights Act." But the act has been weakened by a Supreme Court decision in 2013 and another one last year

Critics of the laws note many have been enacted in states with a long history of racial discrimination in elections, including states such as Georgia and Arizona, that had been subject to federal preclearance requirements before they could change their voting rules. A 2013 decision by the Supreme Court gutted those requirements. 

Security fencing around the Supreme Court is shown removed on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Aug. 29, 2022.

What about 2024? 

Looking ahead, the Supreme Court will also consider a case this fall that legal experts say could fundamentally change how federal elections are run, giving state legislatures more power to set voting rules, draw congressional districts and choose slates of presidential electors with far less oversight from courts.  

At the center of that dispute is a clause in the Constitution that delegates responsibility for federal election rules to the "legislature" of each state subject to oversight by Congress. Conservatives say the plain meaning of the founding document is that state legislatures – and only state legislatures – have the power to set those rules.

More:How an upcoming Supreme Court case could upend 2024 election laws, lawsuits

North Carolina:Supreme Court to hear redistricting suit with deep implications for elections

A decision is expected in that case next year.