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SCOTUS Upholds Decision Waiving Rhode Island Mail Ballot Requirements during COVID-19

High Court Affirms Ruling Eliminating Witness/Notary Requirement for Absentee Ballots for 2020

WASHINGTON—Today, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of two lower courts to waive the two-witness and notary requirement for absentee ballots in Rhode Island for 2020 elections. The case was brought by the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, Common Cause Rhode Island, and individual Rhode Island voters with significant risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19. 

“The court’s decision today affirms our assertion that voters should never have to choose between their health and their right to vote. Democracy was upheld by today’s decision,” said Jane Koster, president of the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island. “Witness and notary requirements do nothing to improve the security of our elections, and now voters can cast their ballots free from the burden of fulfilling these requirements during a deadly pandemic.” 

The ruling provides relief for tens of thousands of voters planning to cast their ballots by mail due to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. The state’s original rules required absentee voters to obtain the signatures of two witnesses or a notary public, a measure that supports verification of ballots but fails to increase the security of elections. The witness/notary requirement was previously waived for the state’s June election. 

“Today’s decision is a victory for democracy. When voters are protected and have the assurance that they can cast their ballot safely and securely, without major barriers, that’s when our democracy works the way it should,” said Dr. Deborah Turner, president of the board of directors of the League of Women Voters of the United States. “Twenty-twenty is not a normal election year, and states like Rhode Island should be celebrated for making necessary election changes to protect voters. Other states around the country should model this policy of putting voters first.” 

Plaintiffs and the state came to an agreement in late July to eliminate the witness/notary requirement for the September 8 Primary Election and the November General Election. The court’s acceptance of that agreement was appealed by the Republican National Committee and Rhode Island Republicans. 

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. 

Steven Brown, executive director, ACLU of Rhode Island said: “We are very pleased that the Republican Party's efforts to turn the fundamental right to vote into an episode of ‘Survivor’ has failed. We are grateful that our vulnerable plaintiffs and others like them will be able to vote securely from the safety and privacy of their homes as they did in June, without needing to risk their health or lives. Today’s action is a victory for basic principles of democracy.” 

John Marion, executive director, Common Cause Rhode Island said: “We are thrilled that the Supreme Court agreed not to stay the consent decree. Because of this order hundreds of thousands of Rhode Island voters will be able to safely cast their ballots without risking their health. Common Cause Rhode Island and our fellow plaintiffs are grateful for the court's action and everyone who made this important victory possible, including our attorneys at the ACLU, Campaign Legal Center, and Fried Frank.”  

Danielle Lang, co-director, Voting Rights and Redistricting, at Campaign Legal Center said: “Making voting safer during a pandemic is a good outcome for everyone, state election officials and advocates alike agree. Removing the witness and notary requirement will protect people’s health and their right to vote.” 

Following this decision, the League will be working to educate voters of the elimination of this requirement and encourage voters to execute their ballots early. 

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CONTACT: Kayla Vix | 202-809-9668 | [email protected]