PHOENIX — The Supreme Court reinstated a new Arizona law Saturday that makes it a felony to collect early ballots.
The order from the nation's highest court overturns a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision a day earlier that blocked the law from being enforced. The decision is a blow to Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts and groups that in wake of the appeals-court decision had geared up to help early voters deliver their ballots to the polls.
Democrats allege the law hurts minorities' ability to vote.
The high court's order adds to a flurry of legal decisions affecting Tuesday's election and ended an 18-hour period during which ballot collection was once again legal in Arizona.
"What a whirlwind!" said Tim LaSota, lawyer for the Arizona Republican Party. The state GOP has been a strong proponent of the law and, through the Republican Lawyers Association, has trained watchers to look out for people returning multiple ballots to the polls Tuesday.
State GOP Chairman Robert Graham called the court's order "a victory for the voters of Arizona."
The Arizona Democratic Party disagreed.
"Although we are disappointed by the Supreme Court's decision, we will respect their decision. In the final three days of this election, the Arizona Democratic Party will continue to follow state law in our voter outreach practices," Alexis Tameron, Arizona Democratic Party chairwoman said in a statement. "Our fight has always been about having more people participate and making the voting process easier for Arizonans, and we will continue this fight not only this election but always."
The lingering question is what to do with the ballots, if any, that were collected Friday while the law was on hold.
Matt Roberts, a spokesman for the Arizona Secretary of State Office, said anyone who gathered ballots Friday should take them to county elections offices.
"I'm sure if anyone dropped them off Monday, there'd be no problem," Roberts said. Elections officials want those votes counted.
Republicans took a different tack.
"The ethical thing would be to return them to the voter," Graham said. It's too late to drop ballots in the mail since it's highly unlikely they would get to county elections offices in time.
B. Loewe of the Bazta Arpaio campaign said his group is still reviewing the court's order. The group is opposing Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's bid for another term.
Bazta Arpaio quickly jumped into action after the 9th Circuit issued an injunction Friday to block the law. It urged voters to text them so someone could collect their ballots and turn them in.
On Saturday, Loewe said the group had not yet decided on guidance for volunteers, nor what to do with the ballots collected Friday. He said he did not have an estimate of how many, if any, were collected.
It took Republicans three years to get the ballot-collection bill through the Legislature.
The law makes it a felony for anyone to return another voter's ballot to the polls. The law has exceptions for members of the same household, caregivers, the postal worker and family members.
Supporters argued that the law was needed to protect against fraud, claiming collectors were "harvesting" the ballots by opening them or otherwise divining how they were marked, and tossing ones that did not align with the collector's political views. Supporters had anecdotal accounts, but no proof this had occurred.
Opponents argued the practice was helpful, especially for new voters or those who waited too long to get their early ballot in the mail. Community groups, especially those working with Latinos, used ballot collection in past elections.
The high court's order apparently was a unanimous decision. There were no dissents filed from the eight-member court.
Although the court did not offer any reasoning for its decision, LaSota said he suspects it was because of the decision in another case involving Arizona, Purcell v. Gonzales. That case determined courts should not inject themselves into elections when Election Day is imminent.
"It is very likely that the Supreme Court issued a stay in such short order, reversing the 9th Circuit, to preserve this principle," he said.
The battle over the bill is not over. The order from Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy states that the stay is in place until the full appeals court can consider the case, which was state and national Democrats filed in April.
Although the 9th Circuit initially upheld the ballot-collection law, a wider panel of that same court blocked it Friday. It will schedule a hearing on the issue later.
Follow Mary Jo Pitzl on Twitter: @maryjpitzl