Wisconsin voters will have to have their absentee ballots returned to local clerks by 8 p.m. on Election Day, under a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a 5-3 decision, the court rejected a request from several groups to reinstate a federal judge’s order that would’ve extended the deadline by six days so long as ballots were postmarked by Nov. 3.
Justice Neil Gorsuch knocked U.S. Judge William Conley’s ruling extending the deadline, which was put on hold by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Gorsuch noted the steps Wisconsin has already taken to accommodate voters amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including mailing absentee ballot requests to registered voters and adding drop boxes. He also noted the variety of ways that voters can already return their absentee ballots.
“So it’s indisputable that Wisconsin has made considerable efforts to accommodate early voting and respond to COVID,” Gorsuch wrote. “The district court’s only possible complaint is that the State hasn’t done enough. But how much is enough?”
Attorney Doug Poland, who represented one of the groups that sued seeking changes to the November election, expressed disappointment in the ruling, saying it puts at risk “the rights of millions of Americans.
The ruling comes as Wisconsin has reported a surge in absentee voting. As of this morning, more than 1.45 million absentee ballots had been returned of the 1.8 million that voters have requested. The total returned includes more than 352,000 who voted early in person.
“This makes it more important than ever that Wisconsinites who are voting absentee return their ballot by mail or at a dropbox as soon as possible,” Poland tweeted.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh dismissed concerns about requiring voters to have their ballots back by Election Day amid the avalanche of requests to vote by mail.
He argued voters who wait until the last minute face challenges even in a normal election.
But Justice Elena Kagan, writing in the dissent, ripped that position, arguing refusing to extend the deadline will “disenfranchise large numbers of responsible voters in the midst of hazardous pandemic conditions.”
Conley originally issued his ruling Sept. 21, and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals initially rejected an appeal by GOP lawmakers in the case, ruling they lacked standing. But the court reversed course after the state Supreme Court provided clarification that it believed legislators had standing to defend Wisconsin law in such cases.
The court then ruled 2-1 that Conley’s ruling violated a U.S. Supreme Court standard guarding against changes to state standards too close to an election. The majority also found Wisconsin voters have had plenty of time to prepare for casting their ballots under normal deadlines amid a pandemic.
Kavanaugh wrote in his concurring opinion that the court had long found state deadlines don’t disenfranchise those who “are capable of meeting the deadline but fail to do so.” He argued the state’s deadline is reasonable and Wisconsin has taken numerous steps to make casting absentee ballots easy.
Those who sought an extension to the absentee ballot deadline have argued there is not enough time with postal delays to request a ballot Thursday, receive it in the mail and send it back in time for the Election Day deadline. But Kavanaugh wrote no “one thinks” it’s possible to do that and that the law was written to accommodate those who make a late request for an absentee ballot so they can drop it off in person.
Kagan, though, questioned the suggestion that Conley’s order came too close to the election, possibly causing confusion. She also argued the extended deadline was reasonable considering the challenges voters face in casting ballots during a pandemic that has progressively gotten worse in Wisconsin.
“On the scales of both constitutional justice and electoral accuracy, protecting the right to vote in a health crisis outweighs conforming to a deadline created in safer days,” she wrote.
Read the ruling here.