Groups Challenge Rhode Island Vote-By-Mail Requirements That Put Voters at Risk During COVID-19 Pandemic

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PROVIDENCE, RI – Campaign Legal Center (CLC), the American Civil Liberties Union, and Fried Frank filed a federal lawsuit today 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 Rhode Island – and three people with disabilities who will have difficulty voting if forced to obtain two witnesses for their mail ballot. One of the plaintiffs is 88 years old and has a severe back condition, and is concerned about the heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 if she is forced to interact with visitors to witness her ballot.

“States need to make reasonable accommodations so voters can cast a ballot without unnecessary risk of contracting COVID-19,” said Jonathan Diaz, legal counsel, voting rights, at Campaign Legal Center (CLC). “There are plenty of safeguards in place to protect the security of Rhode Island elections. Forcing people with disabilities or compromised health, or their family members, to find two witnesses to cast a ballot is unreasonable. The courts need to step in so that voters can participate safely.”

“Removing the witness and notary requirement in the midst of a deadly pandemic is a common-sense solution that protects people’s health and their right to vote,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island

“No one should have to choose between their health and their right to vote,” said John Marion, executive director at Common Cause Rhode Island. “Unfortunately, during this public health emergency, the witnesses-or-notary requirement forces some voters to make that choice.” 

The lawsuit seeks to block provisions of a state law that requires Rhode Islanders who vote by mail to have two witnesses or a notary sign their ballot envelope, even in the midst of a highly contagious and deadly pandemic. These requirements necessitate face-to-face and hand-to-hand interaction between voters and others who pose a potentially fatal risk to the voters’ health.

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.”

Former state Director of Health Michael Fine submitted an affidavit in support of this position, emphasizing the risks that people particularly susceptible to serious illness or death from COVID-19 will face if they must violate social distancing guidelines in order to vote. 

The suit points out that Rhode Island is in a small minority of states that require witness signatures for mail ballots. According to census data, more than 125,000 householders live alone in Rhode Island, and of those, over 50,000 are 65 years and older and, therefore at particular risk if they catch the disease. Multitudes more live with no more than one other adult and therefore do not have two capable witnesses within their households.

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.