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Forcing the Vulnerable in Alabama to 'Choose Between Voting and Staying Alive,' SCOTUS Upholds Ban on Curbside Ballot Drop-Off

"An outrageous 5-3 ruling that puts Alabama voters at risk."

Alabama voters head to the polls at the Volunteers of America Southeast Chapter on July 14, 2020 in Mobile, Alabama. (Photo: Michael DeMocker/Getty Images)

Offering no explanation for their ruling, the five conservative justices who hold the majority on the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Alabama state officials Wednesday night in a decision banning curbside voting in the state. 

The ruling will bar counties including Democratic-leaning Montgomery and Jefferson from allowing voters with disabilities or who are at risk of severe, potentially fatal Covid-19 infections from remaining in their cars when they go to the polls to vote in person rather than voting by mail. 

Sam Spital of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, whose client, Howard Porter Jr., was a plaintiff in the case, called the decision an "outrageous 5-3 ruling that puts Alabama voters at risk."

The counties have sought for months to allow curbside voting, in which voters would hand their ballots to a poll worker to avoid having to wait in a crowded polling place and increasing their chances of being exposed to the coronavirus. 

"The Department of  Justice  has  sanctioned  curbside  voting  as  a  remedy  to  ADA  violations, and some 28 States and the District of Columbia already permit curbside voting... The Alabama secretary of state, however, has prohibited counties from offering curbside voting, even for voters with disabilities for whom Covid–19 is disproportionately likely to be fatal."
—Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Secretary of State John Merrill, who has sought to ban the practice, applauded the Supreme Court ruling and called the decision a victory for "election integrity and security" and for "the people of Alabama"—but the five conservative justices did not explain in their ruling how election security might be threatened by a voter receiving assistance from a poll worker while remaining in their car instead of waiting in a crowd of people during a pandemic.

In her dissent on behalf of the three liberal justices, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the Supreme Court has now flouted public health recommendations by the CDC, which has urged states to adopt curbside voting to prevent the spread of Covid-19. 

"This is no radical recommendation," Sotomayor wrote. "The Department of  Justice  has  sanctioned  curbside  voting  as  a  remedy  to  ADA  violations, and some 28 States and the District of Columbia already permit curbside voting... The Alabama secretary of state, however, has prohibited counties from offering curbside voting, even for voters with disabilities for whom Covid–19 is disproportionately likely to be fatal. 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."

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Sotomayor also noted that Merrill has never "meaningfully" disputed that forcing voters with disabilities and pre-existing health conditions to vote in person in the traditional manner could prove fatal this year. 

The Supreme Court ruling overturned two lower federal court rulings which stated that Merrill's ban on curbside voting was a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, granting state officials a stay of those orders. 

Outraged disability rights advocates said the ruling will force people with disabilities "to choose between voting and staying alive."

Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, noted that the conservative justices had ruled from the safety of their homes against voters who aim to protect themselves from severe Covid-19 infections.

"Reminder: the Supreme Court is still operating remotely," Clarke tweeted. 

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