PROVIDENCE — While states such as Georgia and Florida are enacting new laws that make it more difficult to vote, the majority of Rhode Island voters say they would back mail ballots, early voting, and same-day registration initiatives, advocates said Wednesday.
Members of the Rhode Island Voting Access Coalition stood in front of The Avenue Concept’s VOTE mural, detailing the results of a new poll that shows strong public support for “Let RI Vote” legislation that would lower barriers to voting.
“At a time when we do see states, sadly, working to restrict voting options for their citizens, I am proud that Rhode Island continues to be a leader in voting access,” Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea said. “And with this legislation, it will absolutely continue leading our country.”
Wednesday’s event took place hours after U.S. House Republicans ousted US Representative Liz Cheney from her position as the chamber’s No. 3 GOP leader, punishing her for rebuking former President Donald Trump over his false claims of election fraud and his role in inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.
“There’s a national conversation to combat the Big Lie, as it’s called, that the Republicans are putting forward,” said state Senator Dawn Euer, a Newport Democrat. “We know that we had the safest, most secure, highest participation election cycle during the pandemic. That’s something to be proud of.”
Euer noted that even with the pandemic, Rhode Island voters turned out in record numbers in 2020, when vote-by-mail barriers were temporarily reduced and residents were encouraged to cast mail ballots or vote early in-person.
“We learned a lot of things about our country, both good and bad, from the pandemic,” Euer said. “Many of the things that are outlined in this legislation are things that were done by executive order or by court order during the pandemic. They worked.” And now, it’s time to codify those changes in law, she said.
The coalition – which includes 29 groups including Common Cause Rhode Island, the ACLU of Rhode Island, the NAACP Providence branch, and the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams – is backing two bills now before the General Assembly.
The Let RI Vote Act, sponsored by Euer and House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian, would make permanent the temporary changes made during the pandemic, such as eliminating the requirement to sign absentee ballots in the presence of two witnesses or a notary.
Another bill, sponsored by Kazarian and Senator Alana DiMario, would let voters decide on a constitutional amendment that would allow same-day voter registration.
The poll found that 86 percent of Rhode Island voters who cast ballots last year believe that making voting “as easy as possible” is important, while 65 percent say it is very important.
But the results revealed significant partisan differences: 66 percent of Republican voters thought making voting as easy as possible is important, compared to 82 percent of unaffiliated voters, and 96 percent of Democratic voters.
The poll – commissioned by a Represent Us and conducted by D.C.-based Lincoln Park Strategies – reflects 500 interviews with voters between April 27-29. The poll, which had a margin of error was 4.4 percentage points, found:
- 71 percent support creating an in-person early voting period 20 days before Election Day.
- 61 percent support continuing the pandemic practice of letting people use absentee ballots without getting their signature notarized or witnessed by two people.
- 61 percent support same-day voter registration.
- 60 percent support allowing voters to request a mail ballot online.
- 57 percent support “no excuse” mail ballot applications.
- 56 percent support a permanent mail ballot voter list.
Kazarian, an East Providence Democrat, said Rhode Island’s voter turnout was 6 points higher in 2020 than in 2016. “We want to keep this momentum going,” she said. “We want to continue to give Rhode Islanders options when it comes to voting, allowing them to make a plan to vote that best suits their schedules.
DiMario, a North Kingstown Democrat, called for placing a question on the November ballot asking if Rhode Island should change its constitution to do away with the requirement that voters register at least 30 days before an election.
“Right now, anyone can show up on Election Day and register to vote for the president,” DiMario said. “So why shouldn’t they be able to do the same for town council, school committee, the General Assembly and statewide offices?”
She said 21 states and Washington, D.C., already allow same-day voter registration, and Rhode Island’s 30-day requirement is tied with several other states for the longest period in the country.
Standing near the VOTE mural’s image of the late US Representative John Lewis, DiMario said the proposed legislation would align Rhode Island with the goals of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act now before Congress.
“At the state and national level, these changes are essential to creating a functional democracy where everyone is included and represented,” she said. “We have the ability to safely and securely modernize our elections.”
In reaction, the Rhode Island Republican Party said, “Today, some who are lobbying to change Rhode Island law to make it easier to commit voter fraud are releasing numbers from their slanted poll to support their legislative agenda.”
“Stop wasting time trying to get people to vote by mail,” the GOP said. “Now that the pandemic is ending, people prefer to vote in person. Instead, spend time and money cleaning up the voter rolls. It is easy vote in Rhode Island. It’s time to make harder to cheat.”
Meanwhile, Representative Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, a Cranston Republican, has introduced legislation at the State House that would require mail ballots to include a watermark for verification purposes. The bill is modeled on legislation recently approved by Tennessee’s legislature, she said.
“This bill allows the voter and election officials to ensure that this is an official ballot, and not a replication made for nefarious purposes,” Fenton-Fung said in a statement. “Let’s find common ground and bipartisan approaches to improve the security of our election system when we can.”