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When it comes to voting laws, Rhode Island looks more like parts of the Deep South

A lawsuit could change that - at least during the pandemic

Envelope and sticker for the mail-in ballots used in Rhode Island's June 2 presidential preference primary.
Envelope and sticker for the mail-in ballots used in Rhode Island's June 2 presidential preference primary.Rhode Island Secretary of State

PROVIDENCE — If you want to vote by mail in Rhode Island, the first thing you have to do is request a mail ballot. The process is similar to most other states in the country — except those that conduct all-mail voting — and involves filling out a one-page application at least 20 days before an election.

What happens next places Rhode Island in a tiny fraction of mostly red states with which it is rarely compared. The state requires that two people or a notary public witness your signature before you mail or hand in your ballot in person. There are only 12 states that require a witness or a notary, and only Rhode Island and Alabama require two witnesses.

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A lawsuit filed in federal court last week by Common Cause Rhode Island and the League of Women Voters Rhode Island is seeking to have the state waive the witness requirement because of the coronavirus, and a consent agreement could be announced as soon as Tuesday.

But while the pandemic could lead to a temporary change in Rhode Island’s mail ballot rules, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea is among the advocates who say the witness policy as well as the state’s voter identification law — Rhode Islanders must show a picture ID — are overly burdensome even under normal conditions, especially in states that are overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats.

“People are perplexed because we are described as a Democratic-majority state, and it is perplexing that we have this on the books,” said Gorbea, a Democrat who is widely expected to run for governor in 2022. Both the mail ballot witness rule and the state’s voter identification law took effect before Gorbea ever sought public office, and she has not made her opposition to those policies a significant part of her agenda since she became secretary of state in 2015.

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While state leaders have shown virtually no appetite for changing the voter ID law since it was approved in 2011, the coronavirus has breathed new life into efforts to alter the mail ballot procedure. But supporters of the laws say they both deter voter fraud, an accusation that — to varying degrees of accuracy — has been leveled against Rhode Island politicians for decades.

“We know Secretary Gorbea doesn’t support safeguards against voter fraud,” said Brandon Bell, a former chairman of the Rhode Island Republican Party and one of its current attorneys. “But we and many Democrats across the state are about making it easier to vote, but harder to cheat.”

For the presidential preference primary in June, Governor Gina Raimondo signed an executive order that suspended the requirement for voters to have two witnesses or a notary present when they sign their ballot. The state also sent mail-ballot applications to every registered voter, which it is not doing before the Sept. 8 state primary. A decision about applications for the Nov. 3 general election hasn’t been made.

The Rhode Island House of Representatives approved legislation earlier this month that would have allowed all voters to be sent a mail ballot application for the September primary and November general election while also waiving the witness requirement, but the Senate declined to act on the bill.

Senate spokesman Greg Pare said Senate President Dominick Ruggerio was primarily concerned “about the use of taxpayer funds for the extraordinary, inefficient, and unnecessary expense of mailing every Rhode Island voter a ballot application when the application is already readily available to them.”

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Ruggerio did not take a position on the witness requirement, although he did accuse Gorbea of politicizing the issue when she released a statement criticizing the Senate for not considering the House bill.

In addition to the lawsuit filed by Common Cause Rhode Island and the League of Women Voters Rhode Island, the decision to keep the witness requirement in place has led to criticism from national voting rights advocates.

“Rhode Island is indeed among a cohort of states that have in place extremely burdensome and restrictive rules that are making it harder for people to access the ballot during the pandemic,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“In many respects, Rhode Island’s rule is forcing people to choose between preserving their health and exercising the right to vote,” Clarke said.

The state Board of Elections met in executive session Monday morning to discuss a possible consent agreement in the lawsuit, and U.S. District Court Judge Mary S. McElroy held a hearing on the lawsuit Monday afternoon.

The terms of the proposed agreement have not been disclosed, and McElroy said she will allow Bell, the GOP lawyer, and an attorney for the Republican National Committee to argue that they should be defendants in the lawsuit at another hearing Tuesday.

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“These requirements have been around for decades,” Bell said. “This is a non-burdensome safeguard for voting. About a dozen states such as Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Virginia all have these requirements.”

North Carolina lawmakers approved a bill earlier this year to require only one witness or a notary to be present when a voter signs a ballot. That left Rhode Island and Alabama as the only states that require two witnesses or a notary, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Mississippi, Missouri, and Oklahoma require all mail ballots to be notarized.

When it comes to voter identification laws, Rhode Island is one of 36 states that require or request voters to show some form of identification to vote.

The law prompted heated debate in 2011, but it was approved by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly and signed into law by then-Governor Lincoln Chafee, an independent who identified as a progressive. (Chafee, who was a Republican in the US Senate, later became a Democrat, and is now a Libertarian.)

Although Massachusetts does not have a voter identification law and Connecticut law does not require a photo ID, Gorbea acknowledged that she rarely hears complaints about Rhode Island’s law.

The state allows voters to cast a provisional ballot if they do not have identification, or if their ID is expired.

“On the spectrum of voter ID laws in the United States, Rhode Island is the most liberal,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island.

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Still, Gorbea said she would not support a voter ID law if it were being considered now.

“For a lot of people this is a not a burden,” Gorbea said. “But for people at the margins, it is an additional burden.”


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.