The Supreme Court will not intervene in a legal fight concerning absentee ballots in Rhode Island, meaning the state’s order removing a requirement that absentee ballots must be signed by two witnesses or a notary public will stand.
Thursday’s order is a loss for the Republican National Committee, which had asked the court to step in after lower courts ruled to uphold the new absentee ballot rules. The witness requirement was eliminated at the height of the pandemic, and applied to absentee ballots during the state’s rescheduled presidential primary on June 2.
The order was unsigned. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch said they would have granted the RNC’s request for a stay.
Rhode Island’s Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, a Democrat, said the Supreme Court’s order means the state will begin sending out absentee ballots Thursday for its September primary.
“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.”
In its filing to the Supreme Court, the Republicans argued that the pandemic won’t prevent voters from getting signatures from witnesses or a notary.
“That task is not unusually difficult - certainly no more difficult than getting a photo ID,” the party’s filing stated.
“Witnesses can be family, friends, coworkers, congregants, teachers, waiters, bartenders, gymgoers, neighbors, grocers, and more. And every bank, credit union, UPS, and FedEx has a notary,” it added.
The Republican Party of Rhode Island issued a statement Thursday saying it “fear[s] that this decision will create more, not less confusion this election year,” citing the large number of absentee ballots that were returned during the June presidential primary election. “The June presidential primary nearly overwhelmed the system. About 2,825 mail ballots were not counted and 36,281 mail ballots that were sent out have never been accounted for. The June election was inconsequential, but a chaotic November election will have serious consequences for public confidence in our election system.”
A spokesperson for the Secretary of State disputed Republicans’ depiction of the June primary saying that while it was a challenge for local election officials to keep up with the demand for mail-in ballots, “the Board of Elections and local boards of canvassers worked around the clock to transition from a polling place-based election system to a mostly mail ballot system in a matter of two months - during an unprecedented public health crisis.” Spokesperson Nick Domings added, “That hard work helped 83% of Rhode Island voters cast their ballot safely and securely from home.”
The decision to extend the elimination of the witness requirement for the general election came as part of an agreement between the Democratic-run state government and a group of voters who brought a lawsuit asking the rule to be waived during the pandemic.
In a ruling last week, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals declined to reinstate the witness requirement.
The Supreme Court noted that since state officials in Rhode Island agreed to ease the witness requirements on the absentee ballots, Republicans challenging the new rules did not have adequate reason to stop the ballots from being sent out.
Rhode Island is scheduled to begin mailing absentee ballots to residents on Friday in advance of its September state primary election.
Under Rhode Island law, any voter may request an absentee ballot and they are not required to list a reason.