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Supreme Court Rules Against Democrats to Extend Mail-In Ballot Counting Deadline

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Supreme Court Rules Against Democrats to Extend Mail-In Ballot Counting Deadline

2020-10-27 21:09:27

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Neil Gorsuch (Image source: Public domain)

The Supreme Court was a busy place on Monday night. Not only was Amy Coney Barrett confirmed and sworn in as the next justice, but the conservative majority rejected a request from Democrats and civil rights group to extend the deadline for counting mail-in ballots past Election Day.

The vote was 5 to 3 in a conservatives vs. liberals vote. Conservative justices say they must defer to state officials on these types of decisions, and the liberal justices believe there's a need for changes during the worldwide health crisis.

"On the scales of both constitutional justices and electoral accuracy, protecting the right to vote in a health crisis outweighs conforming to a deadline created in safer days," wrote liberal Justice Elena Kagan in dissent.

Trump appointee Justice Brett Kavanaugh remarked that Kagan's "green light to federal courts  to rewrite dozens of state election laws around the country over the next two weeks seems to be rooted in a belief that federal judges know better than state legislators about how to run elections during a pandemic."

With Donald Trump being upfront that he may not accept a loss on November 3, should it come to that, this decision of the justices has become important.

"The most powerful rebuke to Republican judicial activism is to defeat Trump and elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in a landslide," said Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler in a statement.

"The Democratic Party of Wisconsin will double down on making sure that every Wisconsin voter knows how to exercise their right to vote in the final eight days of this election.

Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Andrew Hitt opined, "Democrats' attempts to get the courts to rewrite Wisconsin's election laws on the eve of an election have failed."

Similar issues in other battleground states will be heard in the coming days. North Carolina Republicans are challenging an extension for ballots to be postmarked on time but received after. Additionally, the Pennsylvania GOP asked the court again to overturn an extension granted by the state Supreme Court.

Last week the court allowed the Pennsylvania decision to stand on a 4-to-4 vote. Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberals.

A district judge ruled with the plaintiffs in Wisconsin and extended the deadline by six days past Election Day. He agreed with the argument that the pandemic and surge in mail voting demands that accommodations be made to be sure all votes are counted.

The Republican National Committee, the Wisconsin Republican Party, and Wisconsin's Majority-GOP legislature intervened and defended its initial deadlines. Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals by the 7th Circuit reinstated the requirement that mail-in ballots need to be returned to Election Day at 8 p.m.

Reagan appointee Judge Frank Easterbrook and Trump appointee Amy J. St. Eve wrote that decisions of how to deal with the pandemic effect are "principally a task for the elected branches of government."

Calling it a travesty, George H.W. Bush appointee Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner wrote, "We cannot turn a blind eye to the present circumstances and treat this as an ordinary election."

She added, "Today, in the midst of a pandemic and significantly slowed mail delivery, this court leaves voters to their own devices. Good luck and God bless, Wisconsin. You are going to need it."

Civil rights groups and Democrats argued that they were only looking for similar accommodations to what the Supreme Court approved in April during the Wisconsin primary. With many requests for mail-in ballots days before the primary, the court agreed that ballots that were postmarked by the primary date but received after should be counted.

A brief filed by the groups stated that action "resulted in approximately 80,000 ballots being counted that would have otherwise been rejected as untimely."

Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his decision that, generally speaking, he opposed federal judges intervening in the "thick of election season to enjoin enforcement of a state's laws." He added that the case in Pennsylvania was about the authority state courts have to interpret their own constitutions.

"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," wrote Roberts.

Both Kavanaugh and Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump's first two SCOTUS picks, said it's up to the state legislatures to make these decisions and not the courts.

"It's indisputable that Wisconsin has made considerable efforts to accommodate early voting and respond to COVID," wrote Gorsuch. "The district court's only possible complaint is that the state hasn't done enough. But how much is enough?

"The Constitution provides that state legislatures — not federal judges, not state judges, not state governors, not other state officials — bear primary responsibility for setting election rules."

Kavanaugh sided with Wisconsin officials that believe they have done enough to make voting easier this year.

"The Wisconsin Elections Commission has mailed 1,706,771 absentee ballots to Wisconsin voters. And it has already received back from voters 1,344,535 completed absentee ballots," he wrote. "As those statistics suggest, the dissent's charge that Wisconsin has disenfranchised absentee voters is not tenable."

Kavanaugh added that "Wisconsin's deadline is the same as that in 30 other states and is a reasonable deadline given all the circumstances."

Kagan was joined in her dissent by Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

"Because of the court's ruling, state officials counted 80,000 ballots — about five percent of the total cast — that were postmarked by Election Day but would have been discarded for arriving a few days later," wrote Kagan.

"Today, millions of Wisconsin citizens are preparing to vote in the November election. But COVID is not over. In Wisconsin, the pandemic is much worse — more than 20 times worse, by one measure — than it was in the spring," she added, remarking on the actions that were taken for the primary that she believes should be taken again.

She also noted that the state legislature has "not for a moment" considered whether new accommodations are necessary to be sure voters can vote safely. And the majority didn't dispute the lower court's finding that up to 100,000 ballots may arrive too late to be counted.

She also disagreed with the court's reason for not agreeing to changes: it could confuse voters. 

"To the contrary, it would prevent the state from throwing away the votes of people actively participating in the democratic process," wrote Kagan. "And what will undermine the 'integrity' of that process is not the counting but instead the discarding of timely cast ballots that because of pandemic conditions, arrive a bit after Election Day."

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