Lawsuit seeks to scrap witness and notary requirements for RI mail ballots

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Three Rhode Island voters and two organizations are suing state election officials over the witness and notary requirements for mail ballots in the upcoming fall elections, citing safety risks because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Common Cause Rhode Island and The League of Women Voters filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Providence along with voters Miranda Oakley, Barbara Monahan and Mary Baker, asking the court for a temporary restraining order and injunction against the mail ballot requirements. The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU, Campaign Legal Center, and law firm Fried Frank.

The defendants are Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and all the members of the R.I. Board of Elections, in their official capacities running the elections.

Gorbea’s attorney has already told the court she will not oppose the plaintiffs’ request, according to court documents.

Currently, Rhode Island law requires either two witnesses or one notary to sign a voter’s mail ballot envelope, which the plaintiffs argue will require voters to violate social distancing recommendations during the pandemic.

“At the urging of health experts and their own governmental leaders, Rhode Islanders—especially senior citizens and those with underlying health conditions—are avoiding contact with people outside their households to protect their health and slow the spread of COVID-19. Under current state law, mail voting will require voters to violate this social distancing protocol, unless they happen to live with two people who can serve as witnesses or in the incredibly unlikely circumstance that a voter lives with a notary” who is not family, the suit reads.

The lawsuit says one of the plaintiffs — 32-year-old Miranda Oakley of South Kingstown — is blind and unable to drive to the polls. If she votes by mail, she only has one person in her household who can serve as a witness, meaning she would have to seek someone outside her household to witness her filling out her ballot.

Barbara Monahan, another plaintiff, is elderly and concerned about the safety risk of both voting at the polls and seeking out witnesses or a notary to sign her ballot, according to the suit. The third plaintiff, Mary Baker of Glocester, has underlying health conditions and the same concerns.

The suit points out that Gov. Gina Raimondo issued an executive order in the spring waiving the witness and notary requirements for the June presidential primary, but has not done the same for the state’s September primary or November elections.

Gorbea, in a statement Thursday, agreed with the plaintiffs and said she hopes the courts grant their request.

“Rhode Island’s requirement that voters obtain two witnesses or a notary to vote by mail is an unreasonable burden during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Gorbea said. “My office does not have the legal authority to waive this requirement, which is why it was removed by executive order for the June 2 Presidential Primary. As the plaintiffs note in their complaint, I repeatedly urged the General Assembly remove it for the September and November elections. Unfortunately, the Senate failed to act.”

The Rhode Island House did pass a bill that would waive the witness and notary requirements, but the Senate did not take it up because of Senate President Dominick Ruggerio’s opposition to a separate provision of the bill that would send a mail ballot application to every registered voter, as was done for the June presidential race.

Ruggerio’s spokesperson said it would be a waste of money since voters can already request a mail ballot for any reason.

“We are on a tight timeline for the September primary and I hope the courts act quickly so we can provide Rhode Island voters with the ability to vote safely and securely from home without burdensome requirements,” Gorbea said.

Diane Mederos, chair of the Board of Elections and a named defendant, noted that the board voted in July in favor of waiving the notary and witness requirements.

“We sent it off to the General Assembly,” Mederos said. She said the board would discuss the lawsuit, likely at its next meeting.

The Rhode Island Republican Party came out in opposition of removing the witness and notary requirements, citing voter fraud concerns, and said it would seek to intervene in the case.

“COVID-19 cannot be used as an excuse to eliminate safeguards against fraud,” the party statement said. “Rhode Island is in the middle of its Phase III reopening. If it is safe enough for 50 people to meet indoors, for nursing homes to accept visitors, then it is safe enough for a voter to have his or her mail ballot envelope signed by two witnesses or a notary.”

A remote hearing is scheduled to be heard in the judge’s chambers Friday morning.

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

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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