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

Voting rights advocates said the option would have made voting easier and safer during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Image: US Supreme Court
Patrick Semansky / AP

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

Alabama law doesn't prohibit the practice, but it doesn't provide for it, either. Secretary of State John Merrill said it wouldn't be feasible for the state to make it available in this year's election. He said that allowing curbside voting would pose safety concerns, "cause confusion and much harm" 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 copies of photo IDs and to confirm their identities by offering the signatures of two witnesses or notarized statements. 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 disabilities.

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U.S. District 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," Kallon wrote.

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 mailed ballots, so the original state requirements for witnesses and photo IDs remain in effect. But the appeals court allowed the ruling on curbside voting to stand.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have worked diligently with local election officials in all 67 counties to offer safe and secure voting methods — including through the in-person and mail-in processes. I am glad the Supreme Court has recognized our actions to expand absentee voting, while also maintaining the safeguards put into place by the state Legislature," Merrill said in a statement late Wednesday. “The fact that we have already shattered voter participation records with the election still being 13 days away is proof that our current voting options are easy, efficient and accessible for all of Alabama’s voters."

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.