On October 21, the United States Supreme Court issued a 6-3 order, without a majority opinion, staying an injunction, pending appellate review, by the Northern District of Alabama that would have enjoined the Alabama Secretary of State from banning curbside voting on grounds that it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
People First of Alabama, a “nation-wide nonprofit dedicated to elevating the living experience of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” initiated the legal action against Alabama Secretary of State, John Merrill, on behalf of a group of disabled voters alleging that a ban on curbside voting strictly violated the ADA’s mandate that disabled persons must be afforded “meaningful access” to the public benefit of voting via reasonable accommodations, under which curbside voting per se applies. The district court agreed with the assertions, holding that given the COVID-19 pandemic and the numerous expert sources, including from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), stating that people with disabilities are at higher risk for pandemic-related health consequences, a person with a recognizable disability under the ADA is barred aforementioned “meaningful access” to voting with only an in-person option.
Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Breyer and Justice Kagan, drafted a dissent to the Supreme Court order. Sotomayor wrote that she would not have upset the district court’s “record-based, reasoned, and narrowly tailored judgment” because “the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic should, by now, need no elaboration.” Therefore, continued Sotomayor, requiring in-person voting unnecessarily exposes the disabled to heightened health risks, including death, particularly given Alabama’s failure to require face coverings. The dissent further supported this assertion by explaining that the CDC recommends “that States consider curbside voting…to combat the spread of COVID-19” and noting that the “Department of Justice has sanctioned curbside voting as a remedy to ADA violations.”
Justice Sotomayor concluded by stating that the proper legal standard for the stay was whether the district court committed legal error in granting the preliminary injunction. The dissenting panel summarily concluded that no error existed is this circumstance, as the injunctive relief “does not risk creating ‘voter confusion and consequent incentive to remain away from the polls’” given that the court order “does not require all counties to adopt curbside voting; it simply gives prepared counties the option to do so.” The dissent ended by writing, “(counties in Alabama) are ready and willing to help vulnerable voters…cast their ballots without unnecessarily risking infection from a deadly virus. This Court should not stand in their way.”
The plaintiffs are represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, NAACP, and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program.