In a 5-3 ruling on Monday afternoon, the Supreme Court struck down an attempt by the Democratic National Committee that would have allowed ballots received after Election Day to be counted.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined the conservative majority, with Justices Kagan, Breyer, and Sotomayor dissenting.
A District Court had changed Wisconsin election laws, allowing any ballots received up to six days following Election Day to still be counted.
Justice Kavanaugh provided a helpful summary of the case’s movement in his concurring opinion:
“In advance of the November election…a Federal District Court in Wisconsin unilaterally changed the State’s deadline for receipt of absentee ballots. Citing the pandemic, the court extended the deadline for receipt of absentee ballots by six days – from election day, November 3, to November 9, so long as the ballots are postmarked on or before election day, November 3.
The Seventh Circuit stayed the District Court’s injunction, ruling that the District Court had violated this Court’s precedents in two fundamental ways: first, by changing state election rules too close to an election; and second, by usurping the state legislature’s authority to either keep or make changes to state election rules in light of the pandemic.
The Court today denies the applications and maintains the Seventh Circuit’s stay of the District Court’s order.”
Wisconsin is both a battleground state and a current hotspot for COVID-19. On Monday, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services announced that the state had just surpassed 200,000 cases.
The Democratic appeal for extended deadlines relied heavily on the danger of infection and the complications the pandemic has created for the election process and the postal services.
Despite the concerns, the Supreme Court struck down that approval on Monday, citing the inappropriateness of federal judiciary interference in state election laws and the importance of upholding voting deadlines.
The majority argued that the people of Wisconsin have been afforded plenty of opportunity to vote: absentee ballots were mailed in the summer without voters having to request them, and voters have been invited to return their ballots since September.
Justice Gorsuch argued that “over 30 States have long enforced the very same absentee voting deadline.”
“Elections must end sometime, a single deadline supplies clear notice, and requiring ballots be in by election day puts all voters on the same footing,” he wrote.
Justice Kavanaugh argued that the District Court’s injunction was unwarranted for three reasons:
- It “changed Wisconsin’s election rules too close to the election.”
- Federal courts are limited, and health and safety concerns must be addressed instead by the state legislatures.
- Election deadlines are “significant.”
“A deadline is not unconstitutional merely because of voters’ ‘own failure to take timely steps’ to ensure their franchise,” Kavanaugh wrote.
In her dissent, Justice Kagan cited health risks posed by COVID-19 as well as Wisconsin’s presidential primary in which those ballots postmarked by election day were still counted, which allowed 80,000 ballots (5% of what was cast in total) to be counted.
Kagan estimated that “as many as 100,000 citizens would not have their votes counted – even though timely requested and postmarked – without the six-day extension,” which would “severely burden the constitutional right to vote.”
The Court’s decision was handed down hours before Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court.