Supreme Court denies GOP request to block relaxation of RI mail ballot rules

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (WPRI) — The U.S. Supreme Court has denied a request by the Republican Party for an emergency stay to stop the suspension of witness and notary requirements for R.I. mail ballots.

The decision allows Rhode Island election officials to send out mail ballots for the upcoming election without the witness and notary requirements, which were of concern because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

R.I. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea quickly said ballots for the Sept. 8 primary would start to be mailed out on Thursday.

“Your health should never be the price of admission to our democracy,” Gorbea said in a statement. “Making it easier to vote safely from home by removing the burden of obtaining two witnesses or a notary is a common-sense step that will protect Rhode Islanders during this pandemic.”

The deadline to request a mail ballot for the September primary is Aug. 18.

In denying the emergency stay, the court noted that no state officials had challenged the removal of the ballot restrictions, drawing a contrast from a separate decision the high court made regarding mail ballots in Alabama in July.

The Alabama decision also involved witness and notary requirements, along with a requirement to include a copy of a photo ID with a voter’s ballot. But in that case, the Alabama secretary of state — unlike Gorbea — was fighting to keep the restrictions in place.

Unlike the Alabama case, the unsigned SCOTUS decision on Rhode Island reads, “here the state election officials support the challenged decree, and no state official has expressed opposition. Under these circumstances, the applicants lack a cognizable interest in the State’s ability to ‘enforce its duly enacted’ laws.”

Three of the court’s more conservative members — Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch — said they would have granted the GOP’s request.

The decision also notes that suspending the requirements is the “status quo” for voters, since Rhode Island’s most recent election, the June presidential primary, did not require the witness and notary signatures after Gov. Gina Raimondo signed an executive order waiving them.

The decision stems from a lawsuit filed by Common Cause Rhode Island, the R.I. League of Women Voters and three Rhode Island voters against Gorbea and the R.I. Board of Elections, arguing the requirement to get two witnesses or a notary to watch someone vote and sign their ballot would compromise health and safety in light of the pandemic.

Gorbea and the elections board agreed, signing a consent decree to suspend the rules. But the Rhode Island Republican Party and Republican National Committee attempted to intervene to keep the rules in place, arguing they protect against fraud.

The Supreme Court’s ruling is the third denial by a federal court of the GOP’s efforts.

“We are very pleased that the Republican Party’s efforts to turn the fundamental right to vote into an episode of ‘Survivor’ has failed,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, which represented the plaintiffs. “We are grateful that our vulnerable plaintiffs and others like them will be able to vote securely from the safety and privacy of their homes as they did in June, without needing to risk their health or lives.”

The Rhode Island GOP sent out a statement expressing disappointment in the court’s decision.

“We fear that this decision will create more, not less confusion this election year,” the party statement read. “In Alabama, a state law requiring witnesses for mail ballots is constitutional, but in another, Rhode Island, it is unconstitutional. Whether a state election law violates the U.S. Constitution now depends on the whims of your state’s election officials. The authority of state legislators in establishing election laws has been undermined.” (The R.I. House passed a bill to waive the mail ballot signature rules for this fall, but the Senate declined to take up the bill.)

The GOP also pointed out the complaints from some voters who said they didn’t get their mail ballots in time for June’s presidential primary.

“The June election was inconsequential, but a chaotic November election will have serious consequences for public confidence in our election system,” the unsigned statement said.

After the June primary, Gorbea’s office contracted with a new mail ballot printer — K&H Election Services — which will be both printing and mailing the ballots to Rhode Islanders from Everett, Washington.

Nick Domings, a spokesperson for Gorbea, said her office “wanted a vendor who specializes in mail ballots and can print and send a high volume on demand.”

K&H currently prints ballots for states that already hold entirely mail ballot elections, including Washington, Utah and Colorado. A bid package submitted to the state says the printer serves 20 million voters.

The total cost of the new printing contract will depend on how many mail ballots are requested.

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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