GOP appeals court’s waiver of mail ballot witness requirements

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Republican National Committee and the Rhode Island Republican Party has filed a notice of appeal of a federal judge’s decision to suspend witness and notary requirements for Rhode Island mail ballots in the upcoming elections.

The appeal was filed with the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals Thursday, the same day U.S. District Court Judge Mary McElroy entered her formal order waiving the mail ballot requirements.

McElroy had verbally approved of the consent decree at a hearing on Tuesday, where she also denied the GOP motion to intervene as defendants in the case.

The plaintiffs — which included three registered voters, Common Cause RI and the RI League of Women Voters — had sued RI election officials over the requirement to have two witnesses or a notary public sign a voter’s mail ballot before it can be sent in.

The plaintiffs argued the requirements would mean that voters with underlying conditions or other concerns about their COVID-19 risk would need to make contact with people outside their household in order to vote.

Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and the R.I. Board of Elections, who are the defendants, agreed with the concerns of the plaintiffs and entered a consent decree agreeing to suspend the witness and notary rules.

The GOP had argued removing the safeguards could lead to voter fraud.

In her 13-page order filed Thursday, McElroy expounded on her reasoning in approving the consent decree, pointing to other safeguards used to verify who sent in a mail ballot.

“The Board of Elections is statutorily required to assess mail-in ballots to ensure that the name, residence, and signature on the ballot itself all match that same information on the ballot application, including ensuring ‘that both signatures are identical.'” McElroy wrote. “Additionally, voter fraud in Rhode Island is a felony, punishable by up to ten years of imprisonment and/or a fine of between $1,000 and $5,000.”

She noted that the COVID-19 numbers have slightly increased recently, and Gov. Gina Raimondo decided not to move forward with Phase 4 of reopening because of the current rate of spread.

“With the elections months away, there is no telling whether the health crisis will improve or become dramatically worse,” McElroy wrote. “The most reasonable inference, since Rhode Island is in a worsening trend, is that it will become more grave.”

As of Thursday evening, no date has been set yet for any action on the GOP’s appeal.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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