PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ House lawmakers have passed legislation that would send mail ballot applications to every Rhode Island voter ahead of the September primaries and November election.
The bill, according to Rep. Christopher Blazejewski, offer a way for Rhode Islanders to vote without compromising their health and safety during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Sending mail ballot applications to all qualified voters promotes full voter participation in a very important election occurring in the middle of a global pandemic,” Blazejewski said. “We should be encouraging as many voters as possible to vote by mail in order to protect public health while ensuring that voters may safely and securely choose their next president as well as their state and local officials.”
The legislation would only apply to this year’s elections and will not include future elections. If it becomes law, the bill would temporarily waive provisions requiring voters to have a reason to need to vote by mail instead of in person, as well as notary or witness requirements.
“A great many poll workers and voters are senior citizens, or may be immunocompromised or have underlying heath conditions, and they are all at an elevated risk from COVID-19,” Blazejewski said. “The more people who cast their vote by mail, the less exposure the people of Rhode Island face.”
The bill would also require that local boards of canvassers operate drop boxes where voters can drop off their ballot until 8 p.m. on the days of the elections. The ballots would then be processed centrally at the Secretary of State’s office.
“In keeping with the bedrock principles of our democracy, Rhode Islanders should not have to choose between their health and safety, on the one hand, and exercising their right to vote, on the other,” Blazejewski said. “Mail ballots are a safe, secure form of voting that has been employed around the nation for well over a century. Encouraging people to use them will strengthen our elections by boosting participation and giving a voice to many who might otherwise stay away from the polling place out of very justified health concerns.”
The legislation would have headed to the R.I. Senate for consideration, however, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, who has already expressed his opposition to the bill, opted to block it.
John Marion said on behalf of the Voting Access Coaltion said while the votes were an important first step, “they fail to ensure that Rhode Island’s elections will be safe and accessible for all.”
“We thank the RI House for recognizing the urgent need to protect the health and safety of Rhode Island voters,” Marion said. “Unfortunately, the Senate took no action on legislation that would protect the health of those who need to vote by regular mail ballots. By not taking additional steps the Senate has asked the voters of Rhode Island to choose between their health and their right to vote.”
Marion said they’re calling upon the Secretary of State’s office to send out mail ballot applications to all qualified voters immediately.
“Time is quickly running out to prepare for the fall elections, and we need to take bold, urgent action to promote the rights, and safeguard the health, of all voters,” he said.
In response, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea said she would work closely with local election officials to “find ways to ensure voters have safe and healthy voting options this year.”
“Rhode Island is an outlier nationally with our burdensome requirement for voters to find a notary or two witnesses to vote by mail,” she said. “Several states have taken the common-sense step of removing these requirements this year. By not addressing the mail ballot legislation passed by the House, the Senate has given voters an unnecessary hurdle to casting a ballot by mail during the pandemic.”
Greg Pare, a spokesperson for the R.I. Senate, tweeted that, “there’s no need to waste taxpayer dollars mailing them something they can already access.”
He said the last time the Secretary of State mailed 780,000 applications to Rhode Island voters, 626,000 of them “ended up in the trash.”