Supreme Court blocks Wisconsin from extending absentee voting deadline

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday night ruled that Wisconsin cannot accept absentee ballots postmarked after its voting day Tuesday.

In a 5-4 vote along ideological lines, the conservative justices sided with Republican state lawmakers by halting a lower court order to extend absentee voting to April 13, a measure that would have expanded options for avoiding in-person voting amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Extending the date by which ballots may be cast by voters — not just received by the municipal clerks but cast by voters — for an additional six days after the scheduled election day fundamentally alters the nature of the election,” the majority opinion states, noting that the lower district court erred by providing such relief.

The decision came just hours after the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Gov. Tony Evers’s (D) executive order to postpone Tuesday’s vote, sowing confusion and chaos around a critical election featuring a Democratic presidential primary and a pivotal state Supreme Court seat.

Evers had sought to push back the in-person voting date until June 9 and said that all mail and absentee ballots sent up to that date would be counted.

But the pair of rulings from the top federal court and highest Wisconsin state court on Monday largely returned things to the status quo, with in-person voting and a postmark deadline set for the following day, despite a flurry of last-minute legal and political wrangling and a virus that has infected some 2,500 and killed nearly 80 in the state. 

Ballots that are postmarked by Tuesday may be accepted up to April 13, wrote the majority, which comprised Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts. The majority said it intervened with reluctance.

“The court would prefer not to do so, but when a lower court intervenes and alters the election rules so close to the election date, our precedents indicate that this court, as appropriate, should correct that error,” the majority wrote.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissent that was joined by fellow liberal justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

“The district court, acting in view of the dramatically evolving COVID–19 pandemic, entered a preliminary injunction to safeguard the availability of absentee voting in Wisconsin’s spring election,” Ginsburg wrote. “This court now intervenes at the eleventh hour to prevent voters who have timely requested absentee ballots from casting their votes.”

“Under the district court’s order, they would be able to do so. Even if they receive their absentee ballot in the days immediately following election day, they could return it,” Ginsburg added. “With the majority’s stay in place, that will not be possible. Either they will have to brave the polls, endangering their own and others’ safety. Or they will lose their right to vote, through no fault of their own.”

Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, slammed the decision.

“I am about to explode, he tweeted. “The five GOP US Supreme Court justices just overruled two lower courts and shut off extended absentee voting in Wisconsin.”

He added, “The Supreme Court of the United States legislated from the bench today, following Trump team’s orders and writing a new election law to disenfranchise untold thousands of Wisconsin voters and consign an unknown number of Wisconsinites to their deaths.”

The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), however, lauded the ruling, saying they are “pleased with the court’s decision to move forward as planned and to ensure that every Wisconsin voter has an opportunity for his or her voice to be heard.”

“In words Governor Evers’ office used just days ago: ‘Democracy is essential, it must go on.’ The Wisconsin Supreme Court reaffirmed that guiding principle in its decision today, righteously protecting millions of Wisconsin voters from the Democrats’ pitiful, partisan gamesmanship – particularly that of Governor Evers’ shameless reversal from just days ago when even he said he did not have the authority to move the election,” RSLC President Austin Chambers wrote.

Updated at 9:05 p.m.

Tags Brett Kavanaugh Clarence Thomas Elena Kagan Neil Gorsuch Ruth Bader Ginsburg Samuel Alito Sonia Sotomayor Stephen Breyer

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