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Moore v. Circosta

Issues: Whether coronavirus-related changes implemented after the start of absentee voting by North Carolina elections officials to a number of absentee ballot procedures – extending the deadline to receive ballots, and modifying requirements for postmarking and third-party collection of them – violate the state legislature's power to regulate elections under the Constitution as well as the equal protection clause.
State: North Carolina
Court: U.S. Supreme Court
Status: Changes left in place by 4th Circuit; joint appeals filed at U.S. Supreme Court

See Wise v. CircostaMoore v. Circosta

A battle over the deadline for absentee ballots in North Carolina is playing out in both state and federal court and seems likely to arrive at the Supreme Court soon.

The dispute began this summer, when the North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans (along with several voters) filed a lawsuit in state court against the state’s board of elections. Their lawsuit challenged, among other things, the state’s requirement that mail-in ballots be received within three days of Election Day – that is, by Nov. 6. In October, the state court approved a consent agreement between NCARA and the board of elections, which had voted in September to extend the deadline for mail-in ballots to nine days after the election – that is, Nov. 12.

Timothy Moore, the Republican speaker of the state’s House of Representatives, and Philip Berger, the highest-ranking Republican in the state’s senate, had entered the state case as defendants. Moore and Berger also went to federal court, where a judge granted their request to temporarily block the consent agreement from going into effect. But after later proceedings in both the state and federal courts, the additional extension for the receipt of mail-in ballots went into effect.

By a vote of 12-3, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit denied the Republicans’ request for relief, leaving the extension of the deadline for the receipt of absentee ballots in place. Judge James Wynn filed a brief statement regarding the court’s denial of emergency relief, emphasizing – in italics – that all absentee ballots must still be mailed by Election Day. The only change to the state’s election procedures, he stressed, is “an extension from three to nine days after Election Day for a timely ballot to be received and counted. That is all.”

Wynn added that the Purcell principle – the idea that federal courts should not change the rules in the run-up to the election – “strongly counsels against” a ruling for the North Carolina Republicans. The extension of the deadline until Nov. 12 has, he reasoned, “been the status quo ever since the trial court approved the settlement” on Oct. 2.

And on the merits of the Republicans’ argument, Wynn concluded, there is no indication that extending the deadline for absentee ballots will result in one person’s vote counting more than another’s or being evaluated unequally. In this case, Wynn observed, “no voter will be treated differently than any other voter as everyone will be able to have their absentee ballot counted if mailed in on time and received on time.”

Judge Diana Motz wrote separately to stress that “recent actions of the Supreme Court make clear that it is up to a state to decide what election procedures are in effect on Election Day, and not federal courts.” Motz also deemed the Republicans’ argument that the extension of the deadline deprived them of their right to equal protection as “deeply troubling.” The Republicans were not arguing that their right to vote had been injured, she explained. Instead, she observed, they were challenging “measures that remove burdens on other citizens exercising their right to vote.”

Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson dissented, in an opinion joined by Judges G. Steven Agee and Paul Niemeyer. He would have blocked the extension of the deadline while the Republican leaders appealed. Wilkinson explained that he was writing to “draw attention to the accelerating pace of pre-election litigation in this country and all the damaging consequences ensuing therefrom.” Specifically, Wilkinson outlined, although state legislatures are tasked with regulating elections, federal courts and state election boards are “upend[ing] the set rules right in the middle of the election” and then claiming that their actions are the “new status quo,” which cannot be disturbed.

Wilkinson acknowledged that Purcell “has traditionally been applied against federal courts changing the rules shortly before elections,” but he added that there is “no principled reason why this rule should not apply” to state courts and agencies as well. “The victim of a last-minute interference, whatever its source, is the same: a federal election.”

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