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Throughout history, the Supreme Court has played an integral role in shaping American elections.

7 Supreme Court cases that have shaped American elections

The recent Supreme Court rulings on voting rights and election transparency have once again highlighted the enormous power the judicial branch has over the country's electoral process.

Last week, the court's conservative majority upheld a pair of voting laws that tightened the rules in Arizona. In a separate ruling, the justices struck down California's law requiring charitable nonprofits to privately disclose their top donors to the state attorney general. Both cases could have larger implications for the future of American democracy.

Throughout history, the Supreme Court has played an integral role in shaping how voters are represented, ballots are cast and elections are financed. Here are seven landmark cases from the last six decades:


Reynolds v. Sims (1964)

In 1961, a group of Alabama voters challenged the apportionment of the state Legislature, arguing it violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. At the time, Alabama required each county to have at least one representative and allowed as many senators as there were senatorial districts. This led to unequal representation due to large population discrepancies across the districts.

The Supreme Court ruled that legislative districts within a state must have substantially equal representation for all citizens. This ruling has ensured districts maintain even representation when redrawn each decade during redistricting.

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Buckley v. Valeo (1976)

In an attempt to curb political corruption following the Watergate scandal, Congress established limits on election spending through the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act. This case challenged whether those restrictions violated the First Amendment.

In 1976, the Supreme Court arrived at two conclusions with this case, making a distinction between contributions and expenditures. First, the justices determined that a limit on how much an individual can donate to political campaigns and candidates did not violate the First Amendment because it "served the government's interest in safeguarding the integrity of elections." However, the court also found that limits on expenditures by campaigns and candidates did violate the freedoms of speech and association because this practice does not necessarily enhance the potential for corruption in elections.

Also in this ruling, the court overturned FECA's disclosure requirement for independent expenditures made for the purpose of influencing federal elections. This established the two types of political advertising seen today: express advocacy and issue advocacy. Express advocacy ads require disclosure because they explicitly support or oppose a candidate. Issue advocacy ads, on the other hand, mention broad political topics, but not campaigns, and so disclosure is not required. However, there can be ambiguity between the two, leading to calls for more transparency of the wealthy special interests influencing elections.

Miller v. Johnson (1995)

Following the 1990 census, Georgia lawmakers redrew the state's election maps to create a third majority-Black district. However, the new district was so severely gerrymandered that it packed Atlanta's Black neighborhoods in with other Black communities 260 miles away along the Atlantic coast.

Voters in this distorted district challenged the map, arguing it was a racial gerrymander in violation with the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that the district did constitute a racial gerrymander. In some instances, the court held, a reapportionment plan may be so irregular that it cannot be rationally understood as anything but an effort to racially segregate voters.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)

The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act barred electioneering communication — advertising run on broadcast, cable or satellite services and mentioning a candidate — within 60 days of a general election and 30 days of a primary. Citizens United, a conservative advocacy nonprofit, challenged this rule after its movie criticizing then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was blocked by the Federal Election Commission for airing too close to an election.

The Supreme Court struck down this provision of BCRA, ruling that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts cannot be restricted under the First Amendment. However, the court upheld the requirement that electioneering communication be subject to disclaimers and disclosure of sponsors.

More than a decade after the ruling, Citizens United v. FEC is often labeled as the ultimate antagonist of the democracy reform movement. Its harshest critics use the case as shorthand for a campaign financing system that gives a lopsided political advantage to the wealthiest individuals, corporations and other entities. But proponents, mostly conservatives, still hail the ruling as a major victory for free speech and political expression.

A common misconception is that the Citizens United ruling gave rise to super PACs. But it was actually the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decision the same year in SpeechNow.org v. FEC.

Shelby County v. Holder (2013)

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, known as preclearance. Prior to this ruling, certain states and counties with histories of racial discrimination had to get prior federal approval of their proposed changes to voting procedures. But the court found that this constraint, while appropriate in the past, was no longer necessary and placed an unconstitutional burden on states.

Since then, voting rights advocates claim the lack of preclearance has allowed state lawmakers to significantly roll back voting access. But others argue what remains of the Voting Rights Act is enough to protect against discriminatory laws.

McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (2014)

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act set a cap on the total dollars an individual could give to candidates, political parties and political action committees in a two-year election cycle. The law was intended to curb political corruption, but a decade after enactment, it was challenged for violating the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that the aggregate limit failed to prevent corruption or meet the "rigorous" standard of review set by previous campaign finance cases, and therefore it was unconstitutional. There are still limits on how much an individual can give to a single candidate, party or committee, though.

This ruling opened up opportunities for wealthy donors to give to as many political entities as they want. It also led to the creation of joint fundraising committees — partnerships in which campaigns and party committees collect one large check from each donor and split the proceeds.

Rucho v. Common Cause (2019)

Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that cases involving partisan gerrymandering were not justiciable because the issue falls outside the purview of federal courts. The case was brought to the court after North Carolina's maps were challenged for constituting an illegal partisan gerrymander.

This ruling was seen as a massive setback for anti-gerrymandering advocates who had hoped the high court would intervene in extreme gerrymandering cases, such as the one in North Carolina. Now, it will be left up to state courts to decide when gerrymandering goes too far.

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