2020 Elections

Supreme Court blocks curbside voting in Alabama, ending a pandemic election option

Pete Williams
The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, October 11, 2020.
Erin Scott | Reuters

The Supreme Court late Wednesday blocked a lower court order allowing voters in Alabama to cast their ballots curbside at polling places that provide that option, ending an option intended to make voting safer and easier during the pandemic.

Alabama law does not prohibit that practice, but it doesn't provide for it, either. Secretary of State John Merrill said it would not be feasible for the state to make it available for in this year's election. He said allowing curbside voting would "cause confusion and much harm," pose safety concerns, and could compromise ballot secrecy.

Three weeks after absentee voting began, a federal judge barred the state from enforcing laws that required voters to submit a copy of a photo ID and to confirm their identity by offering the signatures of two witnesses or a notarized statement. His ruling came in a lawsuit filed by voting rights groups seeking accommodations for people at risk of severe illness from Covid-19 or who had a disability.

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U.S. District Court Judge Abdul K. Kallon also ruled that counties could offer curbside voting if they wish.

"As applied during the Covid-19 pandemic, the challenged provisions unduly burden the fundamental Constitutional rights of Alabama's most vulnerable voters and violate federal laws designed to protect America's most marginalized citizens," the judge wrote.

Supreme Court Justices Steven Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan said they would have left the judge's order in place. Writing for the three, Sotomayor said curbside voting is a commonsense measure.

"We should not substitute the District Court's reasonable, record-based findings of fact with our own intuitions about the risks of traditional in-person voting during this pandemic or the ability of willing local officials to implement adequate curbside voting procedures," she wrote.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put a hold on the judge's orders pertaining to mail ballots, so the original state requirements for witnesses and photo ID's remain in effect. But the appeals court allowed the ruling on curbside voting to stand.

Voting rights groups said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that states offer curbside voting, and many do, as a way of reducing the risk of spreading Covid-19 at the polls.

"Denying such access for high-risk voters violates the Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act," they told the Supreme Court.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia urged the court to allow curbside voting.

"States have learned that curbside voting is safe, relatively easy to implement, and not associated with voter fraud," the court brief from the states said. "Moreover, curbside voting is particularly beneficial for vulnerable citizens and those with mobility challenges, including those with disabilities."

In July, the Supreme Court blocked a lower court order that lifted the witness and voter identification requirements and allowed for curbside voting in Alabama's primary election.

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