By Trevor Hunnicutt
(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday blocked a lower-court ruling that would have relaxed voting restrictions in Alabama state during the coronavirus pandemic.
Alabama requires voters to submit a photo identification when they apply for an absentee ballot, and it requires that ballot to be returned along with the signature of two witnesses or a notary.
A U.S. district court judge in Birmingham, Alabama's largest city, issued a ruling in June that would have effectively freed voters from the photo I.D. requirement, in some counties, if they are 65 or older or have a disability. Under that ruling, voters with medical conditions that put them at risk of COVID-19 could sidestep the requirement to have their ballots signed by a witness.
The judge also would have blocked Alabama from restricting counties that wished to establish curbside voting.
But the Supreme Court blocked the district court ruling in a 5-4 decision along ideological lines at least until an appeals process is resolved.
The case deals with Alabama's July 14 runoff election, which was postponed from March due to the pandemic and includes a Republican Senate primary between onetime U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former college football coach Tommy Tuberville.
President Donald Trump clashed with Sessions and has endorsed Tuberville.
Democrats and Republicans are fighting nationwide over how to manage voting during a pandemic ahead of the Nov. 3 elections that will determine control of the White House, Congress and state legislatures across the country.
Trump and Republican allies have attacked the idea of expanding mail balloting, arguing it is vulnerable to fraud and worrying that easier voting would hurt their party's chances.
Democrats and voting-rights groups say it is a way to protect voters from the coronavirus, and that a failure to guarantee that option amid a pandemic will hold poor and African Americans from voting because they are deemed more vulnerable to the virus. Those voters lean Democratic.
Alabama's Republican Secretary of State, John Merrill, welcomed the Supreme Court's ruling as consistent with state law and said in an interview that "many liberals have tried to use this pandemic to advance causes" through courts after failing to do so through legislation.
Benard Simelton, who is president of the state chapter of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the Supreme Court ruling would disenfranchise voters.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in New York; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Robert Birsel)
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