PROVIDENCE — The state Senate on Tuesday voted 28 to 6 in favor of the Let RI Vote Act, which would permanently adopt measures used in 2020 during the pandemic, such as eliminating notary or witness requirements for mail ballots.
“Our country in the past couple years has faced unprecedented attacks on our democracy,” said Senator Dawn Euer, the Newport Democrat who introduced the Senate version of the bill. “Given the attacks across the country, I am incredibly proud that Rhode Island is voting today on this bill to expand voter access.”
But Senator Elaine J. Morgan, a Hopkinton Republican, voted against the bill, saying, “We talk about an attack on our democracy – this is an attack on our democracy. Codifying COVID laws into law is a travesty on all Americans.”
The legislation would permanently get rid of the requirement that voters sign absentee ballots in the presence of two witnesses or a notary. 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.
“We’ll be joining virtually every other state that does mail ballots with signature verification process,” Euer said. “Only two other states that require this onerous a process to verify mail ballots – North Carolina and Alabama. I don’t think that is company that Rhode Island wants to keep.”
The bill also would:
- Let voters apply for mail ballots online.
- Allow voters to choose to vote by mail for any reason, without having to give an excuse.
- Define “early voting” as up to 20 days before Election Day.
- Provide for each city or town a ballot drop box that’s maintained and regulated by the state Board of Elections.
- Allow long-term nursing home residents to receive mail ballot applications automatically.
- Require the secretary of state to update the voter registry at least four times a year.
- Set up a hotline in multiple languages to provide information about voting and polling locations.
Senator Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican, said that while the bill would make some “positive changes” such as the voter hotline, she warned that it would make several “dangerous changes” such as removing notary or witness requirements for mail ballots.
“The pandemic should not be used as an excuse to repeal long-standing election laws that were passed with bipartisan support,” she said.
De la Cruz said she has been voting since she was 18 years old and it’s not difficult. “Republicans don’t want to make it difficult to vote, contrary to popular belief,” she said. “We should make it easy to vote – but hard to cheat.”
Euer addressed the suggestion the bill could lead to voter fraud, saying every state senator was elected in 2020 under the rules proposed in the bill and “there were zero claims of fraud filed anywhere with the court as it relates to mail ballots.”
Euer said three people were charged with fraud after registering and voting in multiple states – two who voted in Rhode Island and Florida, and one who voted in Rhode Island and Illinois. “We caught them,” she said. “If we want to address what we have seen in rare instances, we do that by creating the four-times-a-year list maintenance procedures” contained in the bill.
Senator Jonathon Acosta, a Central Falls Democrat, challenged the argument that Rhode Island should avoid permanently adopting COVID-era policies.
“If the COVID era policies were good, we should enshrine them,” he said. “We are doing that with plenty of things. We are doing that with take-out booze. We are doing that with having folks set up restaurants outside.”
De la Cruz said it is “foolish” to compare take-out booze to laws designed to protect the “sanctity and integrity of voting.”
Senator Joshua Miller, a Cranston Democrat, said the codification of telemedicine is a another example of Rhode Island permanently adopting policies used during the pandemic.
Senator Maryellen Goodwin, a Providence Democrat, voted for the bill, saying, “This makes it easier to vote. That is what we should be doing. What are we afraid of? This is a great day for democracy here in the state of Rhode Island.”
Five Republicans and one Democrat – Senator Roger A. Picard of Woonsocket – voted against the bill.
Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, a Democratic candidate for governor who backed the bill, hailed the Senate vote and urged the House to pass the legislation. “The act of casting a ballot is foundational to our democracy. At a time when we see states working to restrict voting options for their citizens, Rhode Island must continue to be a leader in voting access,” she said.
House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian, an East Providence Democrat, has introduced a companion bill, but it has not come to the House floor for a vote.