The current track could make it harder for Republicans and President Donald Trump to stop states from expanding absentee voting in blue states and could hurt Democrats and liberals in red states who want to loosen voting restrictions due to coronavirus.
Danielle Lang, the co-director of voting rights litigation at the Campaign Legal Center, called the Rhode Island ruling a "big relief" given the previous partisan trend.
"Up until today, we were seeing a disconcerting trend of the court deciding to step in when it was doing so in a way that would limit access and refusing to step in when they were being asked of broadening access," Lang told CNN.
Roberts, who is the swing vote between the liberal and conservative wings, has been consistent in deferring to states more broadly, whether they are run by Democrats or Republicans.
Along with the liberal wing, Roberts upheld California's and Nevada's restrictions on church attendance over the visceral objection of conservative justices. With justices from both sides, the court has sided with several states that are fighting changes to their election rules. And the court also has been reluctant to act to change how prisons are run during the pandemic.
"The common thread is that he is exhibiting a lot of deference to state officials right now about health and safety and how to accommodate that, whether they are relaxing rules that would normally apply, like in the Rhode Island context, or whether they are enforcing new restrictions, like in the church case," said Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project.
An uneasy bargain?
The court generally does not explain why it rejects an emergency petition or reveal the vote breakdown. At times, however, justices will make their disagreements public, and in some cases it's clear there's an unhappy 4-4 ideological split with Roberts in the middle as the decider.
In one case, Roberts, rejecting a petition from the South Bay United Pentecostal Church against California's attendance limits in May, stressed the need for local decision-making.
The stand-back approach hasn't sat well at times with the other justices, suggesting it's an uneasy bargain the court's struck.
"The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges," Gorsuch wrote. "But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel."
With a flood of pandemic and election lawsuits coming this fall, there's no telling if the court will stick to its current pattern or at the very least step out and explicitly explain its thinking and provide a road map. Until then, there's a high bar for entry.
Previously this year, the justices also temporarily blocked a lower court order that would have cleared the way for more people in three Alabama counties to vote by absentee ballot during Covid-19. In Texas, the court denied a request from state Democrats to expand access to mail-in voting. And in Idaho, the justices ruled against an interest group was trying to use online signatures in place of having to physically collect them during the pandemic for a ballot initiative on education funding.
"They're not slamming the door closed to litigation, but saying there's a very strong presumption to let state officials decide how to run their own election," Foley said. "Anyone who wants to change what the state is doing at the last minute bears a heavy burden."
If the court's consistent rulings continue during the pandemic, there may be a new "Purcell Principle" for years to come.