PROVIDENCE — As Republican elected officials across the country push for new voting restrictions, a coalition of 27 groups is calling for Rhode Island to lower barriers to using mail ballots, expanding early voting, and allowing same-day voter registration.
The “Let RI Vote” coalition – with groups such as Common Cause Rhode Island, the League of Women Voters, and the ACLU of Rhode Island – launched its drive on Wednesday, saying that despite the pandemic, Rhode Island broke voter turnout records in November because vote-by-mail barriers were temporarily reduced and residents were encouraged to cast mail ballots or vote early in-person.
“There are attempts being made to roll back access to the ballot for eligible voters in states like Georgia, Arizona, and elsewhere,” Common Cause Rhode Island executive director John M. Marion said. “They don’t reflect the clear wishes of voters in 2020 who turned out in record numbers and voted in a variety of ways – not just by mail but also at polling places and in early voting.”
The coalition’s efforts complement the federal voting legislation that House Democrats passed last week day over unanimous Republican opposition. “There is a need for federal action because other states are regressing on voting rights, not progressing,” he said. “We are trying to make progress here in Rhode Island through these bills.”
But the coalition’s effort runs counter to high-profile attempts to restrict voting, such as proposals by Georgia Republicans to sharply limit who could cast absentee ballots.
In Rhode Island, Representative Patricia L. Morgan, a West Warwick Republican, has proposed a bill that would tighten requirements and procedures for registering to vote and applying for a mail ballot, and expressly outlaw the practice of “ballot harvesting.” And Representative Michael W. Chippendale, a Foster Republican, has proposed legislation that would prohibit the secretary of state from mass mailing mail ballot applications.
“Clearly, voting rights has gotten caught up in our national partisan polarization, and the same is true in Rhode Island,” Marion said. “We will oppose efforts to restrict access to the ballot for eligible voters.”
Before the pandemic, Rhode Island voters had to sign absentee ballots in the presence of two witnesses or a notary. But those requirements were waived during the pandemic, and the US Supreme Court rejected a request by the Republican National Committee and Rhode Island Republicans to stop a federal judge from relaxing those requirements.
Now, the coalition is proposing legislation that would get rid of those requirements permanently. “We have run four successful elections in 10 months without that requirement,” Marion said. “So this would make it permanent, and Rhode Island would join us the vast majority of states that do not require mail ballots to be witnessed or notarized.”
House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian, an East Providence Democrat, and Senator Dawn Euer, a Newport Democrat, introduced legislation that would make a series of changes to state election law. For example, the bill would eliminate the need to provide an excuse to get a mail ballot, and voters could sign up online to be automatically sent a mail ballot in each election.
“It has always been a uniquely American struggle to get our residents to vote,” Kazarian said, “and this legislation, as we saw last election, will encourage more voters to participate in the electoral process.”
Senator Alana M. DiMario, a North Kingstown Democrat, introduced a bill that would place a question on the 2022 ballot allowing voters to amend the state Constitution to allow same-day voter registration. Now, voters must be registered 30 days prior to an election.
“Our government works best when it truly reflects the will of the people it serves,” DiMario said. “Removing barriers to voting like the 30-day registration requirement results in more people having their voice heard on Election Day.”
Marion called same-day registration “the game changer for increasing voter turnout.” He said 21 states allow same-day voter registration – including Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine – and it has increased voter turnout by 5 percent on average. Same-day registration has been in use for decades without widespread fraud, he said, and technology will let states to do more to prevent fraud.
Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, a Democrat who serves as the state’s chief election official, spoke in favor of the legislation, saying it would expand voting access by expanding early in-person voting, permanently removing the witness and notary requirement, and creating lists of people who want mail ballots for each election.
“Our work in defending democracy is so important at a time when we see states working to restrict voting options for their citizens,” Gorbea said. “Rhode Island needs us to be a leader in voting access and this legislation keeps us moving forward.”
The legislation would require that early voting be available the weekend before Election Day, adding to the current system that allows early voting 20 days prior to an election. It would increase the number of drop boxes where voters can place their mail ballots by requiring at least one drop box for every 20,000 registered voters.
Also, the legislation would allow voters to request Braille ballots up to 21 days before an election, rather than 45 days. It would require the secretary of state to set up a bilingual hotline to answer voter questions. And it would provide more-frequent maintenance of voter registration lists.
Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, said the lawsuit that the ACLU filed to eliminate witness and notary requirements amid the pandemic shows that “many unnecessary obstacles” stand in the way of voting.
“Passage of this important legislation will codify the lessons we learned from COVID-19 and make Rhode Island’s electoral process simpler, fairer, and more equitable,” he said.