WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday night that Alabama can ban curbside voting in the upcoming elections, handing Republicans a victory in their battle against easing election rules because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shorthanded following Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, the court ruled 5-3, with the remaining three liberal justices dissenting.
A federal appeals court already had refused to lift an Alabama requirement that voters using absentee ballots submit affidavits signed by a notary or two adult witnesses. That court also reaffirmed the need for absentee ballots to include copies of photo IDs.
But the appeals court refused to let state officials block counties from employing curbside voting, leading to the latest Supreme Court case.
State Attorney General Steve Marshall argued in legal papers that curbside voting – used in the past to assist voters with disabilities – “comes with a host of logistical, safety and ballot secrecy concerns.” Among them: the need to transfer custody of the ballot to a third party.
Challengers, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the practice “as a means of reducing the risk of spreading COVID-19 at the polls.”
“COVID-19 has infected 172,000 Alabamians and led to the deaths of more than 2,700 of them,” they said. “Every decision about whether to leave home requires Alabamians to take calculated health risks. These risks are especially acute for people who … are at higher risk of severe illness or death from the virus due to their age and/or underlying medical conditions.”
The five conservative justices in the majority did not explain their decision, which is common in emergency petitions. But the three liberals did: Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for her two colleagues, said voters with disabilities, “for whom COVID-19 is disproportionately likely to be fatal,” should not be required to stand indoors to vote “for as long as it takes, in a crowd of fellow voters whom Alabama does not require to wear face coverings.”
Alabama has a storied history of voting rights challenges. In the 2013 case Shelby County, Ala., v. Holder, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision striking down the formula under which some states and counties were required to get Justice Department approval to change election practices. The ruling led many southern states to institute new voting restrictions.