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Supreme Court Temporarily Blocks Easier Voting By Mail In Alabama During Coronavirus

The U.S. Supreme Court in an emergency ruling Thursday evening temporarily blocked a lower court's decision that, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, would have made it easier for residents of three Alabama counties to vote by absentee ballot in July 14 primary runoff elections.

The high court split 5-4 in the decision, with Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor — the four justices appointed by Democratic presidents — all in opposition. There was no reasoning provided by the court for the ruling, which is typical for such an emergency decision.

The decision means voters who are 65 and older or disabled in Mobile, Jefferson and Lee counties, where coronavirus infections have soared in recent weeks, will have to provide a copy of a photo ID while applying for a mail-in ballot. And to be counted, all absentee ballots will have to be accompanied by an affidavit signed either by a notary public or two adult witnesses.

Election officials in those counties had been blocked from enforcing those requirements in a June 15 ruling by Judge Abdul Kallon of the U.S. District Court in Birmingham. The Obama appointee agreed with plaintiffs from those counties that the requirements were excessive in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic.

"The court finds that the burdens imposed by the challenged election laws on voters at high risk of severe complications or death from COVID-19," Kallon wrote in his opinion, "are not justified by the state's interests in enforcing laws."

The judge also ruled against Alabama's de facto ban on curbside collection of absentee ballots, writing that the practice should be allowed in any jurisdictions that wished to do so.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta on June 25 denied the state of Alabama's request to put the ruling easing the voting requirements on hold.

"The photo ID and the witness requirements force at least some Alabamians, including the individual plaintiffs here," wrote Circuit Judges Robin Rosenbaum and Jill Pryor, "to increase their risk of contracting COVID-19 by foregoing nationwide and statewide social distancing and self-isolation rules and recommendations to apply for and successfully vote absentee."

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill then sought the intervention of the Supreme Court, whose ruling blocks Judge Kallon's preliminary injunction against enforcement of the voting requirements while the case works its way through appeals.

"I am excited that the United States Supreme Court has ruled in favor of those who believe in strict interpretation of the Constitution," Merrill wrote on Twitter Thursday evening, "and has decided to grant the Stay and not endorse legislating from the bench."

Merrill had earlier belittled claims by the lawsuit's plaintiffs that the requirements for mail-in voting, such as obtaining copies of photo IDs, were too onerous and risky for voters facing a deadly pandemic.

"When I come to your house and show you how to use your printer I can also teach you how to tie your shoes and to tie your tie," Merrill tweeted in late April. "I could also go with you to Walmart or Kinko's and make sure that you know how to get a copy of your ID made while you're buying cigarettes or alcohol."

The high court ruling came on a day when the number of new COVID-19 cases in Alabama reached 1,758, a record daily total for the state, according to the .

"Devastating! Sup Court ruling means most vulnerable Alabama voters must risk their lives to VOTE during the Covid-19 pandemic!" U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., wroteof the decision on Twitter. "With the surge of confirmed cases in AL, this is simply unacceptable!"

A primary runoff election originally scheduled for March 31 was moved by Alabama Republican Gov. Kay Ivey to July 14 because of the pandemic.

Along with some more local races, it will determine whether former U.S. Sen. and Attorney General Jeff Sessions or former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville will be the Republican challenging Democratic incumbent Doug Jones in the November U.S. Senate election.

The Supreme Court's conservative majority had issued a similar ruling in April, in which a lower court's decision to grant six extra days for absentee ballots to be received in Wisconsin's statewide balloting was overturned. Like the one in Alabama, the reasoning behind the Wisconsin court's decision had been to mitigate the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic faced by voters.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.