In a 5-3 ruling, the justices on Monday refused to reinstate a lower court order that called for mailed ballots to be counted if they are received up to six days after the 3 November election. A federal appeals court had already put that order on hold.
The ruling awards a victory for Republicans in their crusade against expanding voting rights and access. It also came just moments before the Republican-controlled Senate voted to confirm Amy Coney Barrett, a victory for the right that locks in a conservative majority on the nation’s highest court for years to come.
The three liberal justices dissented. John Roberts, the chief justice, last week joined the liberals to preserve a Pennsylvania state court order extending the absentee ballot deadline but voted the other way in the Wisconsin case, which has moved through federal courts.
“Different bodies of law and different precedents govern these two situations and require, in these particular circumstances, that we allow the modification of election rules in Pennsylvania but not Wisconsin,” Roberts wrote.
“As the Covid pandemic rages, the court has failed to adequately protect the nation’s voters,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissent that noted the state allowed the six-day extension for primary voting in April and that roughly 80,000 ballots were received after the day of the primary election.
Democrats argued that the flood of absentee ballots and other challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic makes it necessary to extend the period in which ballots can be counted. Wisconsin, a swing state, is also one of the nation’s hotspots for Covid-19, with hospitals treating a record high number of patients with the disease. The supreme court allowed a similar extension to go into effect for Wisconsin’s April election, a decision that led to nearly 80,000 additional votes getting counted in the contest (Trump carried the state in 2016 by just under 23,000 votes).
Republicans opposed the extension, saying that voters have plenty of opportunities to cast their ballots by the close of polls on election day and that the rules should not be changed so close to the election.
The justices often say nothing, or very little, about the reasons for their votes in these emergency cases, but on Monday, four justices wrote opinions totaling 35 pages to lay out their competing rationales.
Justice Neil Gorsuch acknowledged the complications the pandemic adds to voting, but defended the court’s action.
“No one doubts that conducting a national election amid a pandemic poses serious challenges. But none of that means individual judges may improvise with their own election rules in place of those the people’s representatives have adopted,” Gorsuch wrote.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, meanwhile, echoed Trump in writing that states should announce results on election night.
States “want to be able to definitively announce the results of the election on election night, or as soon as possible thereafter”, he wrote. “Moreover, particularly in a presidential election, counting all the votes quickly can help the state promptly resolve any disputes, address any need for recounts, and begin the process of canvassing and certifying the election results in an expeditious manner.” He also wrote states had an interest in avoiding “the chaos and suspicions of impropriety that can ensue if thousands of absentee ballots flow in after election day and potentially flip the results of an election.”
That comment earned a sharp rebuke from Kagan, who said “there are no results to ‘flip’ until all valid votes are counted”.
She noted that the bigger threat to election “integrity” was valid votes going uncounted. “nothing could be more ‘suspicio[us]’ or “improp[er]’ than refusing to tally votes once the clock strikes 12 on election night. To suggest otherwise, especially in these fractious times, is to disserve the electoral process,” she wrote.
Kavanaugh cited Vermont as an example of a state that “decided not to make changes to their ordinary election rules” due to the pandemic, even though, in fact, the state authorized the secretary of state to automatically mail a ballot to all registered voters this year, in order to make it easier for everyone to vote absentee.
In a significant footnote, Kavanaugh also wrote that state courts do not have a “blank check” to step in on state laws governing federal elections, endorsing conservative justices’ rationale in deciding the election in 2000 between George W Bush and Al Gore.
Two decades ago, in Bush v Gore, the supreme court decided – effectively – that Bush would be the US president after settling a recount dispute in the swing state of Florida. Back then, three conservative justices – William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas – said that the Florida supreme court “impermissibly distorted” the state’s election code by ordering a recount of a close election, during which voting machines were found to have issues correctly counting the votes.
In Monday’s ruling, Kavanaugh and Gorsuch – both Trump appointees – endorsed that view expressed in the Bush v Gore case, a move that could foretell how the court, which now has a 6-3 conservative majority, would rule if the results of the presidential election are contested.
Justices Thomas, Samuel Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh recently voted to block a deadline extension to count ballots in Pennsylvania. However, with only eight justice on the court at the time, and the conservative justice John Roberts siding with liberals – at tied court ultimately upheld the deadline extension.
But Pennsylvania Republicans, sensing an ally in Barrett, have asked for a re-do. In making their case, they are arguing that the state supreme court overstepped by ordering officials to count mail-in ballots that are sent by election day but arrive up to three days later.
Agencies contributed to this report
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