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

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The state of Rhode Island has agreed to eliminate witness/notary requirements for vote by mail throughout the 2020 elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A court issued the decree on July 28.

Campaign Legal Center, the American Civil Liberties Union and law firm Fried Frank filed a federal lawsuit on July 23 challenging the requirements.

The case was brought on behalf of two voting rights advocacy groups — Common Cause Rhode Island and the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island — and Rhode Islanders with significant medical vulnerabilities that place them or members of their household at a heightened risk of severe illness or death if they contract COVID-19.

The following reactions are from:

Jonathan Diaz, legal counsel, voting rights, Campaign Legal Center: “Today’s agreement is a huge victory for voters in Rhode Island. In the two remaining statewide election days in 2020, people will not have to choose between casting a ballot that will count and placing their health at risk.

Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island: “Removing the witness and notary requirement in the midst of a deadly pandemic will protect people’s health and their right to vote. It was the right thing to do. This is a major victory for the voters of Rhode Island and for our democracy."

Common Cause Rhode Island Executive Director John Marion: “Today’s decision is a victory for all Rhode Islanders who want to cast their vote by mail in the upcoming elections. 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 would force some voters to make that choice. We are delighted by today’s resolution, which will allow Rhode Islanders to plan to vote by mail without having to break quarantine to get their ballots signed by witnesses or a notary public.

Jane Koster, president of the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island: “We are thrilled with the agreement to waive Rhode Island’s onerous two-witness and notary requirement for mail-in ballots for our upcoming elections. This agreement is especially important for Black, Latinx, elderly, and disabled voters, who will rely on mail-in ballots to vote safely this year. Now Rhode Island voters can be assured that their safely-cast ballots will count."

The lawsuit, Common Cause Rhode Island v. Gorbea, was filed in U.S. District Court.