WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a request from Republicans to block a trial judge’s ruling making it easier for voters in Rhode Island to cast absentee ballots during the coronavirus pandemic. The judge’s ruling suspended a requirement that voters using mailed ballots fill them out in the presence of two witnesses or a notary.
The Supreme Court’s unsigned order included an explanation, which is unusual when its acts on emergency applications. The case differed from similar ones in which state officials had opposed changes to state laws ordered by federal judges, the order said. “Here the state election officials support the challenged decree,” the order said, “and no state official has expressed opposition.”
The order added that Rhode Island’s last election was conducted without the witness requirement, meaning that instituting a change now could confuse voters.
Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch dissented.
Last month, dividing 5 to 4, the court issued an order in a case from Alabama that rejected a trial judge’s ruling suspending the witness requirement. In that case, though, it was Alabama officials who objected to the ruling. In the new case, the objections came solely from Republican groups.
In the Rhode Island case, state officials responded to a suit from groups challenging the state law by negotiating a settlement. The parties submitted a consent decree to Judge Mary S. McElroy of the Federal District Court in Rhode Island, who approved it.
In endorsing the consent decree, she wrote that the state’s requirement “places an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote” given the realities of the pandemic.
A unanimous three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Boston, refused to stay Judge McElroy’s ruling while an appeal moved forward.
In an unsigned opinion, the panel said the witness requirement interfered with the right to vote. “First, many more voters are likely to want to vote without going to the polls and will thus only vote if they can vote by mail,” the panel wrote. “Second, many voters may be deterred by the fear of contagion from interacting with witnesses or a notary.”
“Could a determined and resourceful voter intent on voting manage to work around these impediments?” the panel asked. “Certainly. But it is also certain that the burdens are much more unusual and substantial than those that voters are generally expected to bear. Taking an unusual and in fact unnecessary chance with your life is a heavy burden to bear simply to vote.”
In asking the Supreme Court to intervene, the Republican National Committee and the state’s Republican Party wrote that the Rhode Island case was indistinguishable from the Alabama one. The witness requirement, they said, imposed only a slight burden.
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated August 12, 2020
Can I travel within the United States?
- Many states have travel restrictions, and lots of them are taking active measures to enforce those restrictions, like issuing fines or asking visitors to quarantine for 14 days. Here’s an ever-updating list of statewide restrictions. In general, travel does increase your chance of getting and spreading the virus, as you are bound to encounter more people than if you remained at your house in your own “pod.” “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from Covid-19,” the C.D.C. says. If you do travel, though, take precautions. If you can, drive. If you have to fly, be careful about picking your airline. But know that airlines are taking real steps to keep planes clean and limit your risk.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?
- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
What is school going to look like in September?
- It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.
“Rhode Island gives voters nearly a month to find two witnesses or one notary,” they wrote. “Witnesses can be family, friends, co-workers, congregants, teachers, waiters, bartenders, gym goers, neighbors, grocers and more. And every bank, credit union, U.P.S. and FedEx has a notary.”
In separate briefs, state officials and groups challenging the witness requirement urged the Supreme Court not to intercede. The officials asked the court to respect their considered judgments about how best to address a health crisis.
The groups — the state affiliates of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters — wrote that the June presidential primary was conducted without the witness requirement, that 83 percent of voters had cast their ballots by mail and that the election had been conducted without incident.