Supreme Court leaves North Carolina's Nov. 12 deadline for receipt of absentee ballots in place

Richard Wolf, USA TODAY
·3 min read

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court refused Wednesday to second-guess election rules in North Carolina, a key battleground state, that allow absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted if they arrive up to nine days later.

Conservative Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissented from the court's denial of state Republicans' petition. New Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate.

The court's order was the latest in a string of rulings on last-minute challenges brought by both political parties in states that could determine the outcome of the presidential race.

More: Supreme Court leaves in place Pennsylvania's Nov. 6 deadline for return of absentee ballots

In recent days, the justices have allowed absentee ballots in Pennsylvania to arrive three days after Election Day but blocked a six-day extension in Wisconsin. Both states, along with Michigan, are considered most likely to decide whether President Donald Trump or former vice president Joe Biden takes the oath of office in January.

Nearly 400 lawsuits have been filed from coast to coast contesting the way Americans are voting, mostly because of health risks and concerns about potential mail delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Republicans, including Trump's reelection campaign, have been seeking to impose restrictions while Democrats push for expanded voting rights. And the lawsuits could continue after Election Day.

In North Carolina, where more than 3.6 million votes already have been cast, including 800,000 by mail, a law passed in June allowed ballots mailed by Election Day to be counted if they are received up to three days later. But the Board of Elections extended that to nine days as part of a legal settlement with a retirees' group aligned with Democrats.

State and federal courts have upheld the Nov. 12 deadline for the receipt of ballots postmarked by Nov. 3, most recently last week in a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. But three dissenting judges there urged the legislature to "take this case up to the Supreme Court immediately."

Early voters line up to cast their ballots at the South Regional Library polling location in Durham, N.C., Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020.
Early voters line up to cast their ballots at the South Regional Library polling location in Durham, N.C., Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020.

In their petition, the legislative leaders urged the justices to block the later deadline "to avoid the specter of a post-election dispute over the validity of ballots received during the disputed period."

But state Attorney General Joshua Stein responded in court papers that the elections board has taken similar actions in the past in response to emergencies such as hurricanes, with no legal challenge.

"The board’s actions do not create disparate and arbitrary treatment," Stein said. "They establish clear, uniform voting standards that apply to all voters statewide."

The Supreme Court has been involved in election lawsuits since April, when it ruled 5-4 along ideological lines that absentee voting in Wisconsin could not be extended past the primary election date. That decision forced state residents who had not received absentee ballots to visit polling places during the early days of the pandemic.

Since then, the high court has issued stopgap rulings on issues ranging from absentee ballot witnesses in Alabama and petition signatures in Idaho to felons' voting rights in Florida and mail ballots for senior citizens in Texas.

The high court has been here before. In 2000, its 5-4 ruling in Bush v. Gore stopped Florida's recount with George W. Bush leading by 537 votes, handing him the presidency.

Since then, its rulings on voting rights have been among its most controversial. After Chief Justice John Roberts' 5-4 opinion in 2013 in an Alabama case wiped out a key section of the Voting Rights Act, several Southern states with a history of discrimination were freed to impose new restrictions.

Last year, Roberts again led a 5-4 majority to rule that federal courts may not intervene to block even the most partisan legislative district maps drawn by state lawmakers.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court lets N.C. Nov. 12 deadline for mail-in ballots stand