By Susanna Clark
The Rhode Island legislature recently passed the “Let Rhode Island Vote Act,” which was signed into law by the Governor on June 8, 2022. The law contains several measures intended to make voting easier for Rhode Islanders. This comes at a time when several other states like Georgia, Iowa, and Florida have enacted measures to make it more difficult to vote. The lieutenant governor cited COVID-19 and the January 6 riots as reasons for the new law. One of these measures removes the requirement that mail-in ballots be filled out either before a notary public or before two witnesses. Another established a virtual portal that allows voters to apply for the mail-in ballot online, rather than having to fill out their application in person or mail in the form. Furthermore, the statute removes the requirement that voters provide a justification for obtaining a mail-in ballot. The Act further eases restrictions regarding emergency mail-in ballot applications. Moreover, a new telephone hotline provides information on voter registration, the voting process, and polling locations.
Bloomberg News assessed Rhode Island’s election system. Bloomberg found that while Rhode Island’s election system scored well in terms of ballot security, it could still make improvements in the voting category. While the article does indicate that the Act includes online registration, no-excuse early or mail-in voting, and online ballot tracking, it is important to note that the Act does not include some considerable items that other states have implemented to further ease restrictions. These measures include election-day registration, automatic registration (at an agency other than the DMV), a permanent mail-voter list, and voting supercenters (that allow anyone to vote regardless of their precinct). These measures have become more significant in the wake of accusations of election security violations and fraud, propagated mainly by Trump-supporting Republicans.
The former president of the United States infamously claimed that widespread voter fraud ran rampant during the 2020 election. He specifically targeted mail-in voting, which was highly utilized in 2020, likely due to COVID-19. These issues have been highly politicized, especially because of the January 6 riots, which was an attempt by Trump supporters to prevent Congress from confirming the outcome of the 2020 election. This appears to be a notable reason why the legislature passed this bill—to ensure that people who want to vote by mail are able to do so. Bloomberg also measuredhow Rhode Island responded to the 2020 election in other ways. Rhode Island followed its normal auditing and re-count procedures, it did not modify its criminal penalties for election officials, and it did not join a lawsuit attempting to induce the Supreme Court to overturn the election. Furthermore, all of its representatives in Congress voted to certify the election results.
The Rhode Island legislature and governor likely felt it was necessary to take a stronger stance against the allegations of fraud through this Act’s implementation. The decision whether to expand or restrict voting falls almost strictly along party lines. Rhode Island has a Democratic majority in its legislature and a Democratic governor, and the states that passed laws restricting voting have been majority Republican. Voting laws have always been somewhat partisan, but it seems the parties have become even more divided on the ways elections ought to be conducted. It remains to be seen whether the Let Rhode Island Vote Act will increase voter turnout in the midterm elections this November.