Republicans ask Supreme Court to intervene in Rhode Island case involving witness requirements for absentee ballots

The Republican National Committee has asked the Supreme Court to intervene in a case about absentee ballots in Rhode Island, where a recent legal battle in federal court eliminated the state’s requirement that two witnesses, or a notary public, must sign absentee ballots for them to count.

In a ruling last week, the 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals declined to reinstate the witness requirement. The requirement was nixed as part of an agreement between the Democratic-run state government and a group of voters who brought a lawsuit, asking for the rule to be waived during the pandemic.

Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, a Democrat, praised the ruling last week, saying it was “a victory for voting rights.” Election experts say that witness requirements would disenfranchise voters during the Covid-19 pandemic, where people are reluctant to even invite family into their homes.

The Republican Party argued in its filing to Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who will review the request, that the pandemic won’t prevent voters from getting signatures from others.

“Rhode Island gives voters nearly a month to find two witnesses or one 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.”

The Republicans have asked the Supreme Court to halt the lower court’s decision before Wednesday, because Rhode Island will begin mailing absentee ballots for its primary in September to residents on Thursday.

The dispute around the witness requirement stems from a lawsuit brought by liberal-leaning groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters.

“This court case should have ended two weeks ago, when the state of Rhode Island agreed to eliminate witness/notary requirements,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, who blasted the Republican Party for intervening in the lawsuit and trying to undo the agreement.

The litigation is the latest flashpoint in a nationwide legal battle over voting rights this year. Both parties have hired seasoned election lawyers and are setting aside tens of millions of dollars for the fight, which is already playing out in battlegrounds states like Nevada and Pennsylvania.

Some Republicans, led by President Donald Trump, have railed against mail-in voting, falsely claiming it will lead to massive fraud in the election. Democrats, meanwhile, have sought to expand access to mail-in voting as the coronavirus pandemic rages on, saying the option will allow Americans to avoid going to polling centers where infection could spread.

But as Trump publicly argues against mail-in voting, his team is fighting to preserve the aspects of mail-in voting that they hope will offer Trump a strategic advantage.

Their efforts include a push in various states for policies such as enhanced signature matching, requirements for people to file an application before they receive a ballot and limits to when and where mail-in ballots will be counted — things election experts have said could lead to fewer votes being counted from groups that skew Democratic.

There is not widespread voter fraud in US elections, and nonpartisan experts say neither party automatically benefits when states expand access to mail-in voting.

This story has been updated with additional information.