(CN) — In a 5-3 ruling Wednesday evening, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a lower court’s directive that would have allowed curbside voting in Alabama, removing a voting option for Alabama voters that supporters of the measure say would have helped to make voting safer in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis.
As states and local governments around the country grapple with how to allow voters to safely cast their ballots in a nation gripped by a pandemic that has shown little sign of easing up, a fierce legal fight has raged in Alabama over the state’s stance on curbside voting.
The dispute largely stemmed from the position of Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who contends that allowing voters to cast their ballots at curbside polling locations is prohibited in the state and potentially opens up the state to fraud.
These restrictions on curbside voting, however, did not go uncontested. A series of organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, sought to challenge Merrill’s position, arguing that curbside voting would provide more vulnerable voters another option to vote safely and responsibly.
After a court battle, U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon, an Obama appointee, ruled in favor of the challengers.
In a September ruling, Kallon struck down a trio of Alabama voting provisions, chief among them a ban on curbside voting and a law that would have forced Alabama voters casting ballots by mail to include a copy of their photo ID when applying for a ballot and then have either a notary or two witnesses sign absentee ballot affidavits.
“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.
After an appeal, the case ultimately ended up at the Supreme Court, where the high court granted a stay on the matter that essentially reversed Kallon’s ruling and reinstated the ban on curbside voting.
The Supreme Court decision came down 5-3 in favor of granting the stay, though with the order unsigned as is often the case with emergency petitions, the justices voting in favor did not elaborate on their ruling.
The decision was also one vote shy of the typical nine vote total that makes up most Supreme Court decisions, given that the court is still short-handed following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September.
Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Steven Breyer and Elena Kagan, did elaborate in their dissent against the decision, arguing that they believed the lower court’s ruling on the matter was well in line with the needs of American voters during a pandemic.
“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," Sotomayor wrote on behalf of the three more liberal justices on the court.
Wednesday’s ruling stands as a victory for Republicans in Alabama in their fight against expanding voting opportunities they claim could result in voter fraud, though such claims have frequently come under heavy criticism from experts who assert that fears over widespread voter fraud are largely baseless.
The ruling also comes just days after a Supreme Court decision on Monday resulted in a 4-4 split that allowed Pennsylvania mail ballots to be counted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day and are received up to three days afterwards, a potentially crucial decision given that Pennsylvania is a swing state — unlike Alabama, which notably leans Republican.
Sotomayor noted that with the curbside voting now blocked in Alabama, voters who are potentially more at-risk from Covid-19 and who want to cast an in-person ballot are left with one option.
“If those vulnerable voters wish to vote in person, they must wait inside, for as long as it takes, in a crowd of fellow voters whom Alabama does not require to wear face coverings,” Sotomayor wrote.