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LWV of Rhode Island and Partners Challenge Onerous Mail Ballot Requirements during COVID-19

PROVIDENCE— Today, the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island and Common Cause Rhode Island filed a lawsuit, along with individual plaintiffs, seeking to suspend the state’s mail ballot witness and notary requirement during COVID-19.  

“The pandemic has shone a bright light on the barriers facing our most vulnerable voters in Rhode Island. Without relief from onerous laws like our witness requirement, these voters will be disenfranchised,” said Jane Koster, president of the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island. “Senior citizens, Black, Latinx, disabled, and income-sensitive individuals are isolating because of their higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19. These are the same communities who disproportionately struggle with ballot access, and now they are having to choose between their safety and their right to vote.” 

Rhode Island law requires voters to obtain two witness signatures or the signature of a notary when completing their mail ballot—compelling voters isolating from the virus to put their health at risk in order to complete their ballot. Plaintiffs ask for this requirement to be waived for the state’s September primary and the November general election. 

“COVID-19 has made it clear that burdensome and unnecessary requirements to voting by mail, like Rhode Island’s witness and notary requirement, only put voters and their rights at risk,” said Dr. Deborah Turner, president of the board of directors of the League of Women Voters of the United States. “Safe voter access must be the number one priority as our country grapples with a pandemic during the most important election of our lifetimes.” 

In addition to Common Cause RI, LWV of Rhode Island is joined in this case by individual Rhode Island voters Miranda Oakley, Barbara Monahan, and Mary Baker, and represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Rhode Island, Campaign Legal Center, and Fried Frank. 

“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 Common Cause Rhode Island Executive Director John Marion. “Unfortunately, during this public health emergency, the witnesses-or-notary requirement forces some voters to make that choice.” 

“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. “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.” 

The last day to register for the September 8 primary election is August 9. Mail ballot applications for the Primary are due on August 18 at 4:00 p.m.

Read the case filing HERE.

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CONTACT: Sarah Courtney | 202-263-1332 | [email protected]