In a trend taking hold around the country, Rhode Island voters are increasingly turning to vote-by-mail as a safe method of casting their ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic. Eighty-three percent of Rhode Islanders exercised their right to vote by mail ballot in the June 2020 presidential primary.
In a victory for voting rights, the state of Rhode Island has agreed to discontinue its practice of enforcing a witness and notary requirement to vote by mail for its two remaining statewide elections in 2020, following a legal challenge from Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and partners.
CLC filed a lawsuit, Common Cause Rhode Island v. Gorbea, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island on July 23, 2020 on behalf of citizens who are seeking to exercise their voting rights, but face difficulty accessing the polls due to preexisting conditions or having vulnerable family members at home.
Rhode Island’s requirement that voters obtain two witness signatures or a notary stamp on mail ballots would have placed a serious burden on Rhode Islanders who have otherwise taken significant steps to comply with social distancing rules and avoid exposing themselves or their families to COVID-19.
This requirement is among the strictest in the nation—only two other states require multiple witness signatures on mail ballots.
The requirement to obtain a signature from two witnesses or a notary to vote by mail would have been especially onerous for CLC’s client Miranda Oakley, who lives with her mother and grandmother. Although she’s voted in-person in years past, she wanted to vote by mail in November to avoid unnecessary exposure to the virus.
Casting a ballot at an in-person voting center isn’t a feasible option for her because she is blind and needs assistance from poll workers, which requires close contact. She also needs to touch many surfaces to get from place to place, increasing her chances of getting the virus.
Miranda’s mother works with elderly clients, so Miranda has been following social distancing guidelines to protect not only herself but the people her mother works with. Because her grandmother cannot serve as a witness, the requirement would have required Miranda to come into close contact with someone from outside her home in order to cast a ballot by mail.
Requiring voters to find two witnesses to comply with Rhode Island’s law would force individuals to invite one or two people into their home, or travel outside their home to meet these witnesses. Either of these situations may violate social distancing guidelines and increase the likelihood that those involved will contract COVID-19 and transmit it to others.
Ultimately, the judge concluded after a hearing that Rhode Island’s law carries “a high risk to the general public’s health” and imposes an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote during the pandemic.
To respond to the coronavirus pandemic, CLC’s efforts to expand voter access have taken on renewed urgency as national, state, and local voters seek answers on how elections can proceed safely and securely. Learn more about CLC’s actions to expand voter access and ensure emergency election preparedness in 2020.