The Supreme Court weighed in on behalf of Arizona's Republican leaders Saturday and cleared the way for them to enforce a new state law that makes it felony for anyone other than family members and caregivers to deliver mail-in ballots to official polling places.
The high court in a brief order with no registered dissents blocked a ruling of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which on Friday had halted enforcement of the new law.
It is not clear what will happen now. County election officials had said they did not plan to vigorously enforce the new law. However, the Arizona Republican Party said it was training volunteers to watch and report people who were seen dropping off ballots.
In April, shortly after the new restriction was adopted on a party-line vote in the state Legislature, lawyers for the Democratic National Committee sued, arguing the restriction could prevent thousands of legal voters, particularly those on Indian reservations and on the Mexican border, from having their ballots counted. They said many of these people do not have a post office nearby and rely on others to collect and deliver their ballots.
The law makes a crime out of the "longstanding practice pursuant to which thousands of voters have relied on friends, neighbors, advocacy and political organizations and campaigns to collect and deliver their early ballots to ensure they arrive by 7 p.m Election Day deadline," they said.
Prior to 2013, Arizona was under the close scrutiny of the Voting Rights Act and could not change its voting laws without seeking approval from the Justice Department. But the Supreme Court struck down that provision of the 1965 law on a 5-4 vote and said it was no longer needed to protect the rights of minorities.
Free from federal oversight, Arizona lawmakers passed the new restriction in March. Republicans said that allowing community groups to collect and deliver mail-in ballots could result in fraud.
Under Arizona law, mail ballots have to be received by the polling places by Tuesday.
A federal judge refused to block the new law, and a 9th Circuit panel upheld that decision on a 2-1 vote.
But on Friday, the full 9th Circuit reconsidered that decision and voted to put the Arizona law on hold.
Its order came on a 6-5 vote, with Democratic appointees making the majority and five Republican appointees in dissent. Chief Judge Sidney Thomas, speaking for the majority, said the order would maintain the status quo and prevent confusion.
But on Friday evening, Arizona's attorney general and the Arizona Republican Party filed a joint emergency appeal with Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who oversees the 9th Circuit. They said 26 states, including California, have similar laws on the books. They asked for a stay of the appeals court's decision and argued the last-minute order from the 9th Circuit was disruptive and could cause confusion.
"The application for stay presented to Justice Kennedy and by him referred to the Court is granted," the court said in a Saturday order.
The handling of the matter suggests the justice did not delve into the merits of the dispute but agreed with Arizona's claim that the federal courts should not interfere on the eve of the election.
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