A divided Supreme Court on Thursday blocked –for now – a lower court order that eased deadlines to allow an Idaho political action committee more time to gather necessary signatures for a ballot initiative amid the coronavirus.
The order concerning the ballot process in the age of Covid-19 comes as the court’s conservative majority has turned away other attempts to ease voting-related restrictions because of the pandemic.
The case stems from the actions of Reclaim Idaho, a political action committee that seeks to increase funding in K-12 education. It had attempted to gather the necessary signatures for a ballot initiative, but had to suspend its campaign because it felt uncomfortable seeking signatures during the pandemic.
It claimed its First Amendment rights were violated when Idaho law was not suspended to allow the group to collect signatures electronically. A district court judge extended deadlines and ordered the state to accept electronic signatures.
Idaho Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, accused the court of seizing “control of Idaho’s initiative process” and contravening “an almost century-old principle of Idaho law requiring in-person collection of petition signatures.”
“No system of checks and balances can support such an arbitrary abandonment of constitutional and statutorily-assigned election responsibilities,” his lawyers told the justices in court papers.
Thursday’s order was unsigned. Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, wrote to explain their thinking as to why they voted to block the lower court order.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented.
It is unclear how the other justices voted but it would have taken the votes of five justices to block the order.
“This is not a case about the right to vote, but about how items are placed on the ballot in the first place,” Roberts wrote in the order Thursday. He said that “reasonable, nondiscretionary restrictions are almost certainly justified by the important regulatory interests in combating fraud and ensuring that ballots are not cluttered with initiatives that have not demonstrated sufficient grassroots support.”
Sotomayor noted that the lower court had required Idaho to “accommodate delays and risks” introduced by the coronavirus. She noted that a federal appeals court is due to hear the case on August 11 and if it determines that the lower court’s injunction was “improper” the state could still omit the initiative from the November ballot.