PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — With the clock ticking to print mail ballots for the upcoming state primary election in September, the parties to a lawsuit to suspend Rhode Island’s witness and notary requirements have come to an agreement that would drop those requirements.
But an attempt to intervene in the case by national and local Republicans temporarily scuttled the chance of a decision on the matter Monday. The GOP will get an opportunity to make arguments in a fairness hearing Tuesday, Judge Mary S. McElroy said, as long as they file required documents by 7 p.m. Monday.
The federal case revolves around the state’s requirement that a mail ballot be filled out in the presence or two witnesses or a notary, who then sign the ballot’s envelope attesting that the voter listed is the one who actually filled out the ballot.
The plaintiffs — including three voters and multiple voting-rights groups — and the defendants, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and the R.I. Board of Elections, have already come to an agreement to drop the witness and notary requirements for the September primary and November general election, according to a consent agreement filed with the court.
The agreement says state election officials may ask voters to list their driver’s license number, state ID number, the last 4 digits of their Social Security number or a phone number on their ballots to confirm identity instead.
McElroy did not take up the issue of the consent agreement at Monday’s hearing for a temporary restraining order because of the GOP’s motion to intervene as defendants, filed late Sunday night.
The Republican National Committee and the Rhode Island Republican Party argued in the motion they would provide the “only adversarial testing” of the plaintiffs’ arguments, since the existing defendants did not object to the suit.
The plaintiffs — who include an elderly voter, a blind voter and a voter with underlying health conditions — argue the current rules require them to either invite witnesses into their home, or travel to meet the witnesses, in order to vote in the upcoming elections, despite social distancing guidelines and health concerns. Going to the polls would be even riskier, potentially exposing them to more people who could spread COVID-19.
But the Republicans argue the witness and notary requirements are key safeguards to the mail ballot process, helping to prevent fraud.
The GOP writes in its motion that the mail ballot changes “threaten to confuse voters and undermine confidence in the electoral process.” The party also argues the rule change could affect Republican candidates’ chances of winning by “fundamentally altering the environment” of the election.
“This is not a partisan issue in any way, shape or form,” Michael Keats, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said at Monday’s hearing. “I’m very disappointed to see that the national Republican Party has seen this as an opportunity to comport to some strategy or politics.”
Former Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, the attorney for Gorbea, said printing of mail ballots and “oath envelopes” had already begun, but was halted late last week until her office knows which set of instructions to include.
“Time is of the essence,” Taveras said.
Gorbea’s spokesperson Nick Domings said the printer is “ready to go” as soon as the court rules one way or another.
The state previously suspended the law requiring the witnesses or notary for the June presidential primary, which was done by executive order by Gov. Gina Raimondo.
Her press secretary, Audrey Lucas, did not answer a question last week about why the governor did not issue such an order again for the fall elections. Lucas said the governor’s office would “respect the court’s judgment on this important matter.”
The General Assembly also had the opportunity to waive the witness requirements earlier this month, when the House passed a bill that would suspend those rules and also send a mail ballot application to every registered voter in the state.
But the Senate declined to take up the bill, amid concerns expressed by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio that automatically sending everyone an application would be a waste of resources when they can already apply for one for any reason.
Any voter who wants to apply for a mail ballot for the September primary or November election can do so online here or contact their local board of canvassers.
Steph Machado (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.