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Supreme Court disappoints Republicans in two absentee ballot decisions

Court permits North Carolina to receive and count absentee ballots until Nov. 12

Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The United States Supreme Court on Wednesday permitted North Carolina to receive and count absentee ballots until Nov. 12, nine days after Election Day. The ruling is a defeat for Republicans who challenged a decision by the state elections board to extend the deadline because of concerns about the coronavirus.

In a 5-3 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the liberals on the court to keep in place a decision by the State Board of Elections to extend the deadline to submit absentee ballots because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Associated Press reports.

The elections board had lengthened the deadline as part of a legal settlement made in September with the North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans, a union-affiliated group. The conditions of the settlement also loosened requirements for fixing absentee ballots that lacked a witness signature. North Carolina Republicans and President Donald Trump's campaign filed separate legal appeals asking the Supreme Court to reverse the decision, arguing that state election law specified a three-day deadline to turn in mail-in ballots. They said the State Board of Elections had usurped the legislature's constitutional authority.

The Supreme Court's majority rejected this argument. Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Clarence Thomas dissented, saying they would have granted the Republicans' request to block the deadline extension. Justice Gorsuch argued that the state legislature had already made accommodations for the coronavirus pandemic by permitting absentee ballots to be counted up to three days after Election Day.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the decision "because of the need for a prompt resolution and because she has not had time to fully review the parties' filings," a court spokeswoman said.

North Carolina's Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein celebrated the court's decision in a statement.

"North Carolina voters had a huge win tonight at the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court upheld the State Board of Elections' effort to ensure that every eligible vote counts, even during a pandemic," he said. "Voters must have their mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day, but now we all have certainty that every eligible vote will be counted. Let's vote!"

Republican state Senate leader Phil Berger warned that public confidence in the election would be undermined by extended ballot deadlines.

"The question is simple: May unelected bureaucrats on a state panel controlled by one political party overrule election laws passed by legislatures, even after ballots have already been cast? If public confidence in elections is important to our system of government, then hopefully the answer to that question is no," Berger said in a statement.

In another election-related decision released Wednesday, the Supreme Court declined a request from Pennsylvania Republicans to fast-track their challenge to an extended absentee-ballot deadline in their state.

CNBC reports that Republicans wish to reverse a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision extending the deadline for absentee ballots to be counted by three days to Nov. 6. The case will not be resolved before Election Day, but if the court ultimately rules in favor of Republicans, ballots collected after 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3, may be disqualified.

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