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Rhode Island mail-in voters don’t need witness, Supreme Court rules

The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington.
(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday left in place an agreement allowing Rhode Island residents to vote by mail in two upcoming elections without signing their ballots in the presence of two witnesses or a notary.

State officials had agreed to suspend the requirement because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have said that fulfilling the requirement results in close contact between voters and others, which could expose people to the coronavirus.

The high court rejected an effort by the Republican National Committee and the Republican Party of Rhode Island to put the agreement on hold, noting that “no state official has expressed opposition.”

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch would have put the agreement on hold.

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Republicans argued that witness requirements deterred voter fraud, though elections experts say voter fraud is rare. And they said the state was already allowing 20 days of early voting that would reduce the number of people who went to the polls on election day, and had put in place other protections for voters and poll workers.

The case arose after Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, in April suspended the so-called two-witness requirement for the state’s June 2 presidential primary.

Common Cause Rhode Island, the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island and others sued in July in an effort to extend the suspension.

State officials ultimately agreed to keep the requirement suspended for the Sept. 8 primary and Nov. 3 general election. Republicans objected, but a judge approved the agreement.

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The Supreme Court noted in its brief order Thursday that the most recent election had been held without the requirement: “The status quo is one in which the challenged requirement has not been in effect, given the rules used in Rhode Island’s last election, and many Rhode Island voters may well hold that belief.”

Rhode Island is set to mail absentee ballots this week for its September primary. Races on the ballot include seats in both houses of the General Assembly, Rhode Island’s two congressional seats and one of the state’s two Senate seats.

Aug. 18 is the last day voters can apply for a mail-in ballot for the primary. For the general election, Oct. 13 is the last day to request a mail-in ballot. In both cases, ballots have to be received by 8 p.m. on election day.


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