RIGOP Comments on Senate Election Bills

Please accept these comments on behalf of the Rhode Island Republican State Central Committee (RIGOP) on the following legislation being considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee: S 181, S 184, S 185, S 247, S 516, S 569 and S 621. All these bills seek to make changes in our elections laws that will negatively impact the election process.

Senate Bill 181 proposes to repeal Rhode Island’s voter identification law, which was adopted in 2011. Senate Bill 516 proposes to repeal the voter identification requirement for early in-person voting, which was adopted in 2020.  This is absurd. These voter identification requirements were supported by both Democrats and Republicans, and by legislators of diverse backgrounds. These laws are a necessary safeguard against voter fraud. We are not aware of any situations in Rhode Island where the requirement that a voter provide ID prevented a legitimate voter from casting a ballot. Rhode Island’s voter ID requirement does not cause voter suppression, but it does helps prevent fraud. In fact, we believe mail ballots should have some type of voter identification requirement as well.

Senate Bills 184, 247, 516, and 621 propose to repeal Rhode Island’s requirement that mail ballot applications or mail ballots be witnessed or notarized. This is not justified. Because of the pandemic, the witnesses/notary requirement was suspended pursuant to: (1) a gubernatorial executive order for the presidential primary, (2) a federal court consent decree for the primary, and general elections, and (3) by legislation for the bond special election. By the 2022 election, the pandemic should be over. The pandemic can not be used an excuse to repeal the legal requirement that mail ballots be witnessed or notarized. 
A witness/notary requirement imposes little to no burden on voters seeking to vote by mail.  Rhode Islanders seeking to vote by mail have been required to get the signature of a notary since 1932 or get the signatures of two witnesses since at least 1950. With a notary/witness requirement in place, over 40,000 votes were cast by mail in 2016. The reason there was significant increase in voting by mail in 2020 was not because the witness/notary requirement was suspended but because of voters’ concerns related to COVID-19 and the fact that all voters were sent mail ballot applications.

Most importantly, the witness/notary requirement is safeguard against voter fraud.  Essentially, Rhode Island has a two-step safeguard to ensure that an individual casting a ballot is actually who he or she claims to be. When it comes to voting in person, a voter must sign his or her name and present identification to verify his or her identity. See R.I.GL. §§ 17-19-24.2, and 17-20-2.2.(g). When it comes to voting by mail, a voter must sign his or her name on the envelope and have it witnessed by two people or a notary who confirm the identity of the voter.  See R.I.GL. §§ 17-20-2.1, 17-20-2.2, 17-20-26. Eliminating the witnesses/notary safeguard increases the possibility of fraud.  
Mail ballot voting is susceptible to fraud. In 2005, the Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker, concluded that mail-in voting “increase[s] the risks of fraud.” A notorious example from Rhode Island history of mail ballot fraud occurred in the Providence mayoral election of 1982 in which Mayor Vincent Cianci Jr. won reelection of Lloyd Griffin, Jr.’s mail ballot operation. Many years later in his memoir, Cianci stated that Griffin “had a bit of trouble differentiating between an absentee voter and a fictitious vote.” Cianci explained how Griffin’s operatives persuaded voters to have their mail ballots sent directly to Griffin’s headquarters. “When the ballots arrived, he might have taken them to the people who requested. It’s possible I was told that his people were so nice they would actually help people fill out their ballots. And if, for example, they didn’t want to vote for Mayor Cianci, they would happily put an ‘X’ right next to his name.” Cianci also described how in 1980 Griffin presented him with 3,200 unmarked absentee ballots and told him: “They can all be yours.”

Rather than eliminating the witnesses/notary requirement for mail ballots, legislation should be adopted prohibiting mail ballot harvesting by campaign workers and volunteers. Mail ballot harvesting is the practice whereby campaign workers and volunteers collect and submit mail ballots. Although this practice is illegal in other states, it occurs in Rhode Island as shown by the activities of Edward Cotugno, and Robert Enright. Prohibiting the practice of mail ballot harvesting would help protect the integrity of elections by reducing the possibility that voters will be intimidated or bribed by campaigns.

Senate Bills 247 and 516 appears to allow voters to request a mail ballot electronically, on-line and therefore avoid the requirement that they sign a mail ballot application in order to request a mail ballot. This is not justified. We do not object to individuals downloading and printing a mail ballot application. However, the mail ballot application must be signed by the voter. Because there is no voter identification requirement for mail ballots, signature verification is a key safeguard in the mail ballot voting process. There should be signature requirement not only for the mail ballot but also the mail ballot application. Requiring a voter to sign a mail ballot application is not a burden. During past election many voters were able to sign and return mail ballot applications. In the primary election 2020, although mail ballot applications were not automatically sent to all voters, tens of thousands of voters requested a mail ballot by obtaining and signing mail ballot application. Eliminating the requirement that mail ballot applications be signed by the voter increases the possibility of someone voting by mail fraudulently.

Senate Bills 185, 247, and 516 require that early voting begins twenty days before the election and on weekends during that time period. We have no objection to early in-person voting with voter ID. However, we do believe that 20 days is too long a period of time, and should be shorter. There will be a cost to local property taxpayers for properly staffing early voting locations for three weeks including weekends. Unlike in 2020, the increase in cost for staffing early voting locations may not be reimbursed by the federal government due COVID-19. 
Also, the longer the period of time for early voting, the less time candidates will have in contested primaries and in the general election to communicate to voters before votes are cast. This will put less well-known candidates at a greater disadvantage against better known candidates such as incumbents.

Senate Bill 516 changes the date of the primary to August from September. We do not support this change because it could reduce voter participation because many voters may be away on a vacation in August. We should not have elections in the middle of summer vacation.

Senate Bill 569 changes our state constitution to eliminate the requirement that an individual be registered to vote 30 days before an election.  This change is unjustified.  Individuals who moved to Rhode Island less than 30 days before the election may not be familiar with the state and local candidates or issues in a primary or general election. Same day registration could be administratively challenging for election officials. Specifically, same day registration would not provide sufficient time to ensure that the voter registration is valid. Voter registration fraud may occur. There have been recent instances of voter registration fraud pertaining to a state representative in 2016 and a gubernatorial nominee for Chairperson of the R.I. Public Utilities Commission in 2019. Lastly, only a few thousand people voted just for president and vice-president in 2020 because they were not registered to vote 30 days before the election. Getting registered to vote 30 days before an election imposes little or no burden on voters.

The RIGOP wishes to work in cooperative manner in making changes to the election system so that it will be easy to vote but hard to cheat. Although Democrats are in the majority in Rhode Island, about two out of five Rhode Island voters did not support President Biden. Trust in government has been in decline since the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal. Changes to our electoral process which do not have bipartisan support could cause more voters to lose their trust in our election system.  Keep that mind as you tinker with the foundation of our republic: our elections. 
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