Supreme Court Rules Rhode Island Can Remove Witness Requirement For Mail-In Votes

The lawsuit was part of a nationwide, multimillion-dollar effort by the Republican National Committee and Trump campaign to suppress mail-in votes.

The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected an attempt by Republicans in Rhode Island and the Republican National Committee to force voters filing mail-in ballots in the state to have a notary or two witnesses present.

Six justices ruled Rhode Island is allowed to continue accepting mail-in ballots without the witnesses or notary ― usual requirements for mailed-in votes in the state ― because Rhode Island election officials had relaxed the guidelines for the June primary due to coronavirus concerns and state officials had backed the change.

The RNC has filed several lawsuits in states across the country designed to curtail the number of mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 general election. The Trump reelection campaign has signed on with the RNC in a number of these cases, and both organizations have committed $20 million to fund similar suits throughout the U.S.

Trump, who has falsely claimed that mail-in voting is rife with fraud, has said losing the lawsuits poses the “biggest risk” to his reelection. Voter fraud, including fraud while voting by mail, is extremely rare in the United States.

Nonetheless, the Trump campaign is suing not only to restrict access to mail-in ballots but also to cut the number of polling places in multiple swing states, including Iowa and Nevada.

Rhode Island Republicans and the Republican National Committee wanted mail-in ballots to be notarized or signed by two witnesses.
Rhode Island Republicans and the Republican National Committee wanted mail-in ballots to be notarized or signed by two witnesses.
Mike Blake/reuters

Several states require that a witness, or even multiple witnesses, sign a voter’s ballot in order to have it counted, and the requirement has led to some votes being declared ineligible. In Wisconsin, for example, where election officials have told voters to “be creative” in acquiring witness signatures during a deadly pandemic, 14,000 ballots submitted in this April’s primary were rejected because they failed a witness certification requirement. Rather than waive the witness signature requirement, election officials in the state are advising Wisconsinites to use intricate means to acquire one. The Wisconsin Elections Commission recently advised mail-in voters to video call a witness as they fill out their ballot, then leave their ballot on the porch so the witness can sign and address it.

Voting rights advocates across the country continue to argue that witness requirements disenfranchise voters, particularly at a time when public health officials are advising Americans to practice social distancing to avoid contracting the coronavirus.

Rhode Island, Minnesota and a number of other states have relaxed their witness requirements for mail-in ballots during the pandemic.

Trump has made it clear he will go to extreme, undemocratic measures to discourage and deny mail-in ballots. During an interview on Thursday morning, he said a reason he is against funding for the U.S. Postal Service is because, as Democrats have argued, it is needed for the agency to effectively transfer mail-in votes in November.

“Now they need that money in order to make the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” he said Thursday in an interview on Fox Business.

“But if they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting.”

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