CLC Challenges Requirement that Puts Rhode Island Voters at Risk of Contracting COVID-19

Two men, wearing masks, review documents at a table

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 states to court.

Campaign Legal Center (CLC) 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 three people with disabilities who will have difficulty voting if forced to obtain two witnesses for their mail ballot. One of CLC’s clients, for example, is 88-years-old and has a severe back condition. She is concerned about the heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 if she is forced to interact with visitors to witness her ballot.

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 amid 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.

Rhode Island is one of a small minority of states that require witness signatures for mail ballots. 

According to data from the U.S. Census, more than 125,000 householders live alone in Rhode Island, and of those, over 50,000 are 65 years and older, which puts them 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.

CLC is asking the court to block the Rhode Island 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 the state to issue guidance instructing city and county election officials to count otherwise validly cast mail ballots that are missing witness signatures.

Corey handles media relations for the CLC voting rights and redistricting teams and creates online content. Follow @cgfromdc on Twitter