The Supreme Court late Wednesday declined to block lower court rulings that allow six extra days for accepting ballots sent by mail in North Carolina. The justices left the later deadline in place, a victory for Democrats in a presidential battleground state.
Earlier in the day, in a defeat for Republicans, the court declined to take another look, on a fast track, at the issue of late arriving mail ballots in Pennsylvania, leaving intact a lower court ruling that said the state must count ballots that arrive up to three days after the election.
The vote was 5-3 and newly confirmed Justice Amy Coney Barrett didn't take part in the North Carolina case, the court said, for the same reason cited in the Pennsylvania case, "because of the need for a prompt resolution and because she has not had time to fully review the parties' filings."
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The Trump campaign, state and national Republican parties, and Republican leaders of the state legislature said a decision by North Carolina's Board of Elections to extend the deadline, upheld by lower federal courts, had posed "an immediate threat to the integrity of the federal elections process."
The board changed the mail ballot deadline from Nov. 6, set by the state legislature in June, to Nov. 12, explaining that it acted "to protect lawful North Carolina voters from having their votes thrown out because of mail delays that the Postal Service had explicitly warned the state about."
Under the change, ballots still had to be marked and mailed by Election Day.
State law gives the board authority "to temporarily adjust election rules during an emergency" such as the Covid-19 pandemic, lawyers for the board told the Supreme Court. In the past three years, the board acted twice to extend the deadline for mail ballots after hurricanes hit North Carolina's coast, they said.
In response to Republican challengers, a federal district court judge refused to block the latest change, and so did the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Republicans said the board usurped the power given to state legislatures by the Constitution to set the rules for conducting elections, which should be governed "by the statutes enacted by the people's duly elected representatives, and not by the whims of an unelected state agency."
The board's "election-eve rewrite of the state election code" violated the rule of law and could "lead only to chaos and voter confusion," they said in their Supreme Court filings.
North Carolina's attorney general, Democrat Josh Stein, condemned the challenge. "It's a disgrace that Republicans are trying to block eligible voters from having their votes counted. If voters comply with the statute and mail in their ballots on or before Election Day, they should not be penalized by slow mail delivery in a pandemic."
The deadline for requesting a mail in North Carolina was Oct. 27. Nearly 1.5 million voters in the state asked for one in this year's general election, more than six times the number who requested an absentee ballot in 2016.
President Trump won the state four years ago by a margin of 173,315 votes.