PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A federal judge said Tuesday she plans to issue an order that will suspend witness and notary rules for Rhode Island mail ballots for this fall’s election cycle, a requirement that advocates say would have caused a burden to voting because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
U.S. District Judge Mary S. McElroy said at a hearing Tuesday afternoon she would enter a written order Wednesday approving the agreement made between the plaintiffs — who sued over the signature requirements — and the defendants, R.I. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and the R.I. Board of Elections.
McElroy also denied an attempt from the national and local Republican Party to intervene as defendants in the case. The Republicans had argued removing the witness requirements could lead to voter fraud. (The GOP evoked the late Buddy Cianci, convicted felon and former mayor of Providence, who has written about mail ballot fraud in his memoir “Politics and Pasta.”)
The judge also was not convinced by a GOP argument that the plaintiffs and defendants “colluded” on the consent decree after neither Gov. Gina Raimondo nor the R.I. General Assembly was willing to waive the signature requirements, since neither defendant challenged the suit.
“So are you saying that in order to have a fair deal they have to disagree? No one could agree to anything … if that was the rule,” McElroy said.
The attorney for the GOP, Thomas McCarthy, indicated the party would appeal the decision.
The lawsuit was filed by Common Cause Rhode Island and the R.I. League of Women Voters, along with three named Rhode Island voters, who argued the requirements to have two witnesses or a notary public observe them filling out a ballot and sign the envelope would violate social distancing guidelines and put their health at risk.
Among the plaintiffs was Miranda Oakley, who is blind and said she could not get to the polls on her own, nor did she have two members of her household who could sign her mail ballot. She was concerned about seeking outside witnesses or a notary who could potentially expose her to COVID-19, which she could bring back home to her elderly grandmother.
“They should not be faced with the choice of either putting themselves and their lives at risk and their families at risk or forgoing the right to vote,” said Michael Keats, attorney for the plaintiffs.
Keats noted the slight uptick in COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island recently, and the uncertainty about how the pandemic will be affecting Rhode Island at the time of the September primary and November general election.
Gorbea’s office has said they need to know which mail ballots to print — with the witness and notary instructions or without — as soon as possible so they can begin sending them out in August to voters who request them.
Angel Taveras, the attorney for Gorbea — and former Democratic mayor of Providence — said at the hearing she is “extraordinarily concerned by what she sees as an attempt by Republicans to limit voting rights.”
“Today’s ruling is a victory for voting rights and public health,” Gorbea said in part after the ruling. “I am appalled that the Republican National Committee is actively working to prevent Rhode Islanders from being able to vote safely and securely from their homes during this pandemic.”
Gorbea has also requested that Raimondo activate the R.I. National Guard to assist with the processing of the expected influx of mail ballot applications.
“I believe that this new resource would help alleviate the additional strain placed on the Board of Elections and the local canvassers resulting from the expected surge in mail ballot applications for the Presidential Election, while protecting the security of the [Central Voter Registration System],” Gorbea wrote in a letter last week to Board of Elections chair Diane Mederos and R.I. Town and City Clerks Association president Carol Wordell. “As we’ve discussed it is also best this year to handle the processing of mail ballot applications at a central location, perhaps the Board of Elections.”
Gorbea also suggested hiring unemployed Rhode Islanders to work at the polls on election day.
Audrey Lucas, the press secretary for Raimondo, said Tuesday the governor’s office was “in the process of reviewing” Gorbea’s proposal with the National Guard.