Breaking and Analysis: Without noted dissent, Supreme Court reverses 4th Circuit and says South Carolina voters still need to provide witness signatures to cast absentee ballots (except for those who already voted and ballots received within 2 days)

You can find the order here.

As I explained today in Slate, “In South Carolina, a federal district court held that a requirement that those voting by mail obtain a witness signature unconstitutionally burdened voters’ rights during the pandemic, given the higher risk of COVID coming from obtaining such signatures. This followed similar, unchallenged orders from the judge during the primary season. A 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel reversed, but the full 4th Circuit reinstated the requirement. The Republican Party and South Carolina government have gone to the Supreme Court to restore the requirement, even as voting by mail has already begun.”

In today’s order, the Court reversed the en banc 4th Circuit and reinstated the signature requirement (except for those who already voted and ballots received within two days of this order). Justices Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch would have made those people who voted without a signature have to vote again to have that vote count.

Justice Kavanaugh, speaking only for himself, defending the Court’s order on two grounds: deference to state officials over what do to about covid-related issues and the Purcell principle. I wrote in Slate about Purcell:

The third argument we are seeing from Republicans in both federal and state cases is something I have dubbed the Purcell principle, which suggests that courts should not accept challenges to state laws the nearer the date to an election because changes to voting close to the election can cause voter and election administrator confusion.

The Purcell principle has never been fully explained, it has been applied inconsistently, and it focuses on only one aspect of how courts should consider emergency changes to the rules. It also doesn’t follow ordinary Supreme Court practice of considering a number of factors when adjudicating whether to grant emergency relief. Still, many courts this cycle, including the Supreme Court, have rejected changes to voting rules on grounds they come too close to the election. The South Carolina case is particularly interesting since the witness signature requirement was not in place in the primary and has been used for voting so far. Reinstating it now would cause more confusion and disenfranchisement.

There were no noted dissents from the Court’s order, not even from the three liberals.

What to make of all of this? A few observations:

  1. This sends a strong signal that the Supreme Court is going to be wary of federal court ordered changes close to the election, even those done to deal with burdens on voters created by the pandemic (like the need to get witness signatures). This does not bode well for other cases heading up the pipeline where federal courts issued such orders. It also signals, per Justice Kavanaugh’s concurrence, a strong version of the Purcell principle is in play. With Gorsuch, Alito, and Thomas willing to go even further in risking disenfranchisement of voters, this is a signal that this continues to be a Court not willing to strongly protect voting rights.
  2. It is not clear exactly how these principles will play out when these emergency actions come up from state courts, where the doctrinal context is different. Rather than Anderson-Burdick federal constitutional balancing, these are cases under state law. And as Rick Pildes points out, it would be something new to move Purcell into state court doctrine. We could get some sense of this as the Court decides the pending Pennsylvania petition (also described in my Slate piece).
  3. Why did the Court’s liberals not note a dissent? It could be that they dissented without noting it, but in the other voting cases these Justices did note a dissent. One possibility is a compromise here: note the Court’s order did not extend to those in South Carolina who already voted without including a witness signature. Maybe unanimity was the price here. This also sends a signal to voting rights plaintiffs and Democrats who have been suing that things are not likely to go well as these cases work their way up to the Supreme Court. This is not a place that is going to be friendly for voting rights.
  4. This result doesn’t mean that Democrats and voting rights plaintiffs will lose all the cases coming up to the Court. There are reasons to think that the Pennsylvania case may not go Republicans’ way (as I explain in Slate, the Election Day argument is especially weak). That result may too signal a call to stand down in some of these cases with attempts to further litigate the election rules during a period when over 2 million Americans have voted.
  5. Then again, this is all on the shadow docket, and these ruling are abbreviated and not fully explained. Perhaps we should not read too much into any one ruling. But if I’m a federal district court judge contemplating new relief at this stage of the process, I’m going to think long and hard about that before ordering it.

[This post has been updated.]

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