PROVIDENCE — After a two-hour debate, the House of Representatives on Tuesday voted 52 to 13 for 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.
The Senate voted 28 to 6 in favor of an identical bill on April 27. So after the House and Senate go through the formality of passing the other chamber’s versions, the legislation will go to Governor Daniel J. McKee, who said he’s ready to sign it into law.
“The heart of this bill is to expand access,” said Representative Gregg Amore, an East Providence Democrat. He noted the House vote coincided with the 181st anniversary of the Dorr Rebellion, “which was about access to the ballot” in Rhode Island.
“This is the most non-radical bill on voting that we could propose on voting,” said Amore, a candidate for secretary of state. “I make that case because 27 other states do mail balloting exactly like this. Thirteen of those states are as red as this carpet, and we have not seen widespread voter fraud through mail balloting.”
But Republicans questioned the need for the bill and raised concerns about voter fraud. “We are sacrificing the security of our elections for convenience,” Representative Robert Quattrocchi, a Scituate Republican, said in opposing the bill.
The legislation, introduced by Representative Katherine S. Kazarian, an East Providence Democrat, 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.
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.
Representative Brian C. Newberry, a North Smithfield Republican, opposed the bill. “Why are we doing this?” he said. “What is the burning need to pass the Let RI Vote Act? It may just be trendy.”
But he said while many people voted by mail ballot during the pandemic, recent elections in other parts of the country show people are choosing to vote in person. “If you can vote in person, you should,” he said. “It’s more secure.”
Newberry said when Rhode Island enacted a voter identification law in 2011, opponents argued that voter fraud was rare at the polls and more common with mail ballots. And he said he was the victim of absentee ballot fraud in 2015.
Newberry said he could see the benefits of allowing people to vote in person for three, four, or five days, but not for nearly three weeks before Election Day. He said that would only benefit those who are in office with more name recognition and campaign funding. “It’s an incumbency protection act,” he said.
Representative Michelle McGaw, a Portsmouth Democrat, responded to Newberry, saying, “We are doing this to improve access.” She told of meeting a disabled voter who told her about the difficulties she faced in finding witnesses or a notary to cast a mail ballot.
“So in the last election she voted for the first time in 16 years because with the changes we made in the 2020 election, we made voting accessible to her,” McGaw said. “We made voting accessible to people who have disabilities and may not have been able to get out and vote in the traditional manner. Every time we talk about this bill, I think about her and the voters like her.”
Representative Sherry Roberts, a West Greenwich Republican, said “Especially right now, in light of current events, it seems just really curious to me that we wouldn’t do everything that we possibly could to at least alleviate the doubts out there from people who might think there’s election fraud.”
But Representative Jason Knight, a Barrington Democrat, said if people are suggesting the 2020 presidential election was stolen, the fact is ”it just didn’t happen.” And he said, “I’m not going to sit here and listen to anyone suggest it did when it’s factually false. There was not widespread voter fraud to throw the election in 2020.”
Representative Karen Alzate, a Pawtucket Democrat who chairs the Legislative Black and Latino Caucus, said she is a first generation Colombian-American whose mother did not speak English when she first came to the United States. And she said it’s important for Rhode Island to have a hotline that would provide voting information in a variety of languages.
Republican legislators presented a series of amendments that the overwhelming Democratic chamber rejected.
The 13 “no votes” came from eight Republicans: Quattrocchi, Newberry, Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi, Michael W. Chippendale, Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, George A. Nardone, Justin K. Price, and Sherry Roberts — and five Democrats: Deputy Speaker Charlene M. Lima, Steven J. Lima, Gregory J. Costantino, Robert D. Phillips, and Edward T. Cardillo Jr.
After the vote, McKee, a Democrat, issued a statement saying he’s ready to sign the bill into law.
“Over the past year, our democracy has been tested and we must do everything we can to protect it,” he said. “The Let RI Vote Act is a comprehensive set of common sense tools to protect Rhode Islanders’ voting rights. Thank you to the General Assembly for passing this critical piece of legislation. I’m looking forward to the legislation reaching my desk.”
Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, a Democrat running for governor, hailed the House vote, saying, “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.”
Marcela Betancur, spokesperson for the Let RI Vote Campaign and executive director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University, praised Tuesday’s vote, saying, “This is a major milestone in the history of voting rights in Rhode Island. Now Rhode Island voters will have better access to the ballot.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.