Democrats: Justices' 4-4 tie in election case ominous sign

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FILE - In this May 27, 2020 file photo, a worker processes mail-in ballots at the Bucks County Board of Elections office prior to the primary election in Doylestown, Pa. The Supreme Courts action in a Pennsylvania voting case has heightened fears among Democrats about Amy Coney Barrett joining the high court in time to decide a post-election dispute and with it, the winner of the White House. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

WASHINGTON – With Amy Coney Barrett expected to join the Supreme Court as early as next week, the court's action in a Pennsylvania voting case has heightened fears among Democrats about the court being asked to decide a post-election dispute and with it, the winner of the White House.

The justices split 4-4 Monday over a Republican plea to undo a state court order and force elections officials to ignore absentee ballots received after Election Day, Nov. 3. The tie vote left the Pennsylvania court order in effect and allows mailed ballots to be counted if they are received by Nov. 6. Chief Justice John Roberts and his three liberal colleagues voted to leave the court order in place.

The four conservative members of the court who would have granted the GOP's request are likely to be joined soon by Barrett. That's a potential majority, even without Roberts, in any election-related dispute, whether from Pennsylvania or any other battleground state where mailed-in ballots or a recount fight could decide the winner.

“One more vote, provided by a hard-right, Trump-nominated justice, could be the difference between voting rights and voting suppression,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said Tuesday.

President Donald Trump already has signaled one reason for Barrett’s speedy nomination, just eight days after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, was to have her confirmed and installed on the court in time for any election lawsuit that might reach the justices.

The last time that happened was in 2000, when the court effectively decided the presidential election in favor of George W. Bush by a 5-4 vote.

If nothing else, the split vote Monday strongly suggested there is not likely to be the requisite five votes to upend a federal appeals court order that has blocked a six-day extension of the time to receive and count absentee ballots in Wisconsin. That case is pending at the Supreme Court.

The court's conservatives, Roberts included, have regularly sided with state officials who object when a federal court relaxes election rules, even if the changes arise from the coronavirus pandemic.