States need to make reasonable accommodations so voters can cast a ballot without unnecessary risk of contracting COVID-19. But far too often, they don’t make these changes voluntarily, so advocacy groups have to take action in court to protect voters.
Rhode Island is one of a small minority of states that require witness signatures for mail ballots. According to census data, more than 125,000 Rhode Islanders live alone, and of those, over 50,000 are 65 years and older and are therefore at significant risk of serious health complication if they contract COVID-19. Multitudes more live with no more than one other adult and would need to interact in close proximity with someone outside their household to be able to meet Rhode Island’s dual witness requirement.
Campaign Legal Center (CLC), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), cooperating counsel with the ACLU of Rhode Island, and the law firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP filed a federal lawsuit on July 23, 2020 challenging Rhode Island’s witness/notary requirements for voting by mail throughout the 2020 elections.
The case was filed on behalf of two voting rights advocacy groups – Common Cause Rhode Island and the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island – and three Rhode Island residents with disabilities who will have difficulty voting if forced to obtain two witnesses for their mail ballot.
The groups are asking the court to block the state from enforcing the witness/notary requirements while COVID-19 emergency orders are in place and/or community transmission of COVID-19 is occurring, and order it to issue guidance instructing city and county election officials to count otherwise validly cast mail ballots that are missing witness signatures.
Difficulty of Witness Requirement for Voters with Disabilities
One of the plaintiffs, Miranda Oakley, who is blind and resides in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, votes regularly in elections and plans to participate in the November 2020 General Election. She has been a registered Rhode Island voter since 2006.
Since the start of the pandemic, Ms. Oakley, her mother, and her grandmother – who she lives with – have been closely following social distancing guidelines to protect themselves. She is concerned that prolonged exposure to other individuals at in-person polling locations would put her at serious risk of contracting COVID-19, which she could easily pass to her mother and grandmother. That’s why she plans to vote by mail. Finding a witness would require her to either invite someone into her home or travel outside her house with a driver, which would be a significant burden.
Impact of COVID-19 on Elections
As of mid-July, there have been nearly 3. 5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and nearly 140,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rhode Island has had 17,588 confirmed cases and 985 deaths so far. These figures almost certainly understate the real numbers of COVID-19 victims, given the limitations in testing.
The lawsuit notes that “mail voting represents the best option for most Rhode Island voters to participate safely in the 2020 elections,” but that “the voter-witness interaction required by Rhode Island’s current mail voting procedure constitutes a violation of recommended social distancing and creates a substantial risk of COVID-19 transmission.”
No one should have to choose between their health and their right to vote. Unfortunately, during this public health emergency, the witnesses-or-notary requirement forces some voters to make that choice.