The Supreme Court this week issued a number of key rulings in election-related disputes that could have profound implications for voting outcomes in three battleground states.
The fights — regarding Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin — shared a common theme: Democrats and their allies sought to relax the deadline for the receipt of a record number of mail-in ballots, while Republicans pushed to maintain voting restrictions.
The same partisan contours emerged among the justices. Justices appointed by Democratic presidents were more receptive to arguments in favor of broadening voting rights, while the court’s Republican-appointed members tended to favor strict enforcement of election rules passed by state legislatures.
“These cases pose an exquisite challenge to the vision of an impartial judiciary so cherished by Chief Justice John Roberts,” said Michael Dorf, a law professor at Cornell University.
President Trump and his Republican allies have argued that by relaxing state voting restrictions, judges have unlawfully taken the management of elections away from state legislatures. They have also frequently claimed, largely without evidence, that easing voting rules opens elections up to widespread fraud.
The stakes over mail-ballot extensions have taken on outsized proportions. The 2020 race, the most highly litigated election in the country’s history, is playing out against the backdrop of a pandemic that has killed more than 228,000 in the U.S. The pandemic, in turn, has pushed more people to vote by mail even amid ongoing reports of Postal Service delays.
More than 91 million absentee ballots have been requested or sent across the country, far outpacing earlier elections, with polls showing that supporters of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden are considered about twice as likely as Trump’s backers to vote by mail.
Here’s how the recent Supreme Court rulings could affect voting in the closely contested battleground states of Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin:
Pennsylvania mail ballots that arrive by Nov. 6 and are either postmarked by Election Day or have no postmark will be accepted — assuming the court takes no further action.
The relaxed deadline survived two GOP challenges that came before the Supreme Court. On Wednesday, the justices rejected a request from Pennsylvania Republicans to fast-track their bid to block the mail-ballot due date extension in the key battleground state.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who joined the court Tuesday, did not participate in any of the election litigation that came before the court this week.
The ruling came after the Supreme Court earlier this month left intact Pennsylvania’s mail ballot extension with a 4-4 deadlock. The tie vote let stand a ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court relaxing the due date.
Wednesday’s development means the court would not consider the case until after Election Day, though the court’s three most conservative members indicated they would have preferred to rule on the extension before then.
The vote of five justices was needed to expedite a review of the case, which the GOP's request failed to garner. The denial Wednesday, however, does not prevent the court from taking up the still-pending GOP request for a ruling on the merits, which would require approval from only four justices.
Justice Samuel Alito, along with fellow conservatives Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, held out the possibility that the court could still act on the request in time to affect how votes are counted in Pennsylvania. They added that there is a “strong likelihood” the state court-ordered extension is unconstitutional.
“Although the Court denies the motion to expedite, the petition for [appeal] remains before us, and if it is granted, the case can then be decided under a shortened schedule,” Alito wrote.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) on Wednesday ordered state election officials to segregate mail ballots that arrive after Election Day, which would make the late arrivals easier to identify should the court issue a later ruling that invalidates them.
The Keystone State is a crucial battleground in the 2020 election. Trump won it in 2016 by fewer than 45,000 votes but Biden has maintained a polling lead there this year.
Mail ballots in North Carolina that arrive by Nov. 12 and aren’t postmarked after Election Day will be accepted.
Like Pennsylvania’s relaxed due date, the Tar Heel State’s extended deadline survived a pair of GOP-led challenges that reached the Supreme Court. Both cases preserved a state court-approved deadline extension.
The justices on Thursday denied a Republican bid to block a mail-ballot extension in North Carolina, a day after rejecting a similar GOP effort in the key battleground state. Once again, the court's three most conservative justices — Thomas, Gorsuch and Alito — indicated that they would have granted the Republican request.
The voting breakdown mirrored that of a similar Wednesday night ruling in which the court rejected an effort by the Trump campaign and North Carolina Republicans to reverse the extension.
In a dissent on Wednesday, Gorsuch, joined by Alito, said the relaxed limits reflected an unlawful encroachment by North Carolina’s Board of Elections into the legislature’s management of the election. The due date extension, Gorsuch said, represented an “override [of] a carefully tailored legislative response to COVID.”
“Such last-minute changes by largely unaccountable bodies, too, invite confusion, risk altering election outcomes, and in the process threaten voter confidence in the results,” Gorsuch wrote.
Roughly 1.4 million voters in the state requested mail ballots for the upcoming election, which is almost seven times as many requests compared to this point in 2016, according to the Raleigh News and Observer.
Wisconsin mail ballots are due by Nov. 3.
This strict deadline was cemented Monday when the justices voted 5-3 to deny a bid by Democrats to reinstate a six-day extension for the receipt of mail-in ballots in Wisconsin.
One key difference in the Wisconsin case is that the GOP here was challenging a deadline extension created by a federal judge; the Pennsylvania and North Carolina cases, by contrast, involved state court rulings.
That distinction appeared to prove critical for Roberts, who sided with his fellow conservatives.
Justice Elena Kagan, who was joined by the court’s two other liberals, wrote a 12-page dissent, arguing that the ruling threatens to disenfranchise Wisconsin voters.
“The facts, as found by the district court, are clear: Tens of thousands of Wisconsinites, through no fault of their own, may receive their mail ballots too late to return them by Election Day. Without the district court’s order, they must opt between braving the polls, with all the risk that entails, and losing their right to vote,” Kagan wrote, citing an earlier dissent by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
A federal district judge ruled in September that Wisconsin mail ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 and received up to six days later would be counted, saying that the coronavirus pandemic posed a threat to in-person voting in the state.
But a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit earlier this month reversed the lower court and reinstated the Nov. 3 due date, prompting a petition by the Democratic National Committee asking the Supreme Court to restore the judge’s ruling.