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Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Groups challenge state vote-by-mail requirements that put voters at risk during COVID-19 pandemic

Getting your ballot witnessed/notarized stymies anti-pandemic effect
By UpriseRI 

RI Board of Elections supports voting by mail, will the General Assembly  allow it? | News BreakAttorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Rhode Island, the Campaign Legal Center, and the law firm Fried Frank filed a federal lawsuit  challenging Rhode Island’s witness/notary requirements for voting by mail throughout the 2020 elections.

The case was filed on behalf of two voting rights advocacy groups — Common Cause Rhode Island and the League of Women Voters 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 lawsuit seeks to block provisions of a state law that require Rhode Islanders who vote by mail to have two witnesses or a notary sign their ballot envelope, even in the midst of 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.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Republican National Committee (RNC) has filed a request with the court to intervene in this case, since fighting mail-in voting is a key part of national Republican voter suppression plans. 

Joining them in this request to intervene is state Republican leader Brandon Bell and none other than Charlestown's Special Counsel for Indian Affairs, Joe Larisa. Joe appears to be taking some time off from his surveillance of the Narragansett Indian Tribe to take part in an effort to deprive ALL Rhode Islanders of their civil rights. Question: Will he be try to slip some of his costs onto Charlestown?     - Will Collette

“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.

The individual plaintiffs are:

Miranda Oakley, 32, who is blind and unable to drive. She lives with her mother and grandmother, but her grandmother is not capable of serving as a witness. Oakley is concerned both about the risk of contracting COVID-19— and the risk to herself, her mother, and her elderly grandmother — and about the potential risk of passing COVID-19 on to others beyond her household, particularly given that her mother works with people who are older. Accordingly, she is closely adhering to social distancing guidelines.

Barbara Monahan, 88, who lives alone and cannot drive due to a severe back condition and, also due to this condition, is unable to vote in person. She is concerned about the heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 that would arise if she were forced to break social distancing guidelines in order to have her ballot witnessed.

Mary Baker, who has been diagnosed with asthma, hypertension and diabetes, is deeply concerned about the heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 — and the likely life-threatening or life-ending symptoms she would experience — if she were forced to break social distancing guidelines to get her ballot witnessed.

“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.”

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 more than 18,000 confirmed cases and nearly 1,000 deaths so far. These figures almost certainly understate the real numbers of COVID-19 victims, given the limitations in testing.

The lawsuit notes that “mail voting represents the best option for most Rhode Island voters to participate safely in the 2020 elections,” but that “the voter-witness interaction required by Rhode Island’s current mail voting procedure constitutes a violation of recommended social distancing and creates a substantial risk of COVID-19 transmission.”

Former state Director of Health Michael Fine submitted an affidavit in support of this position, emphasizing the risks that people particularly susceptible to serious illness or death from COVID-19 will face if they must violate social distancing guidelines in order to vote.

The suit points out that Rhode Island is in a small minority of states that require witness signatures for mail ballots. According to census data, more than 125,000 householders live alone in Rhode Island, and of those, over 50,000 are 65 years and older and, therefore at particular risk if they catch the disease.

The groups are asking the court to block the state from enforcing the witness/notary requirements during the September and November elections, and order it to issue guidance instructing municipal election officials to count otherwise validly cast mail ballots that are missing witness signatures.

“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 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. They cannot safely comply with the absentee ballot requirements to invite another person into their environment. 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.”

More information on the case, Common Cause RI et. al. v. Gorbea, including a copy of the complaint can be found here.

EDITOR'S NOTE: For it's part, the Rhode Island Republican Party immediately issued a statement condemning the ACLU's suit:
The ACLU’s lawsuit is not about protecting public health. It is about undermining the integrity of our election. As a result, the Rhode Island Republican Party is preparing to intervene in this case to protect our democracy.” (RIGOP e-mail, July 23, 2020)
The RI GOP draws on Donald Trump's outright lie that mail-in voting causes large-scale fraud, all evidence to the contrary. They also use an apples-and-oranges comparison of getting a ballot notarized and visits to a nursing home:

COVID-19 cannot be used as an excuse to eliminate safeguards against fraud. Rhode Island is in the middle of its Phase III reopening. If it is safe enough for 50 people to meet indoors, for nursing homes to accept visitors, then it is safe enough for a voter to have his or her mail ballot envelope signed by two witnesses or a notary. (RIGOP e-mail, July 23, 2020)
- Will Collette 

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