In a decision one journalist hailed as "the first good news on voting rights from SCOTUS in ages," the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday blocked an effort by the Rhode Island GOP and the Republican National Committee to restore onerous mail-in ballot witness requirements that were suspended by the state's Democratic governor due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
"You can once again vote securely from the safety and privacy of your home."
—ACLU of Rhode Island
Jane Koster, president of the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, applauded the high court's decision as an affirmation of "our assertion that voters should never have to choose between their health and their right to vote."
The 6-3 ruling (pdf)—with Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch dissenting—leaves intact a consent decree allowing Rhode Island voters to mail their ballots without having to sign them in front of two witnesses or a notary. Gov. Gina Raimondo first suspended the requirement for the state's June primary out of fear that forcing people to comply with the rules would expose voters and witnesses to Covid-19.
As the Washington Post reported, the Rhode Island legislature "could not reach agreement on a bill that would extend that accommodation to elections in September and November. Groups including Common Cause sued, and state officials agreed in a consent decree not to enforce the witness requirement."
The state GOP and the Republican National Committee sued over the consent decree and appealed to the Supreme Court after a lower court rejected the Republicans' initial legal challenge.
John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said in a statement that thanks to the Supreme Court's decision Thursday, "hundreds of thousands of Rhode Island voters will be able to safely cast their ballots without risking their health."
"We are thrilled that the Supreme Court agreed not to stay the consent decree," said Marion.
This is great news—the first good news on voting rights from SCOTUS in ages. The justices will NOT reinstate an onerous requirement that Rhode Island voters get two witnesses, or a notary public, to sign their absentee ballots. (Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch dissent.) https://t.co/mVmzfqwX9k
— Mark Joseph Stern (@mjs_DC) August 13, 2020
The ACLU of Rhode Island celebrated the high court's decision as a "victory for democracy" and welcomed the failure of "the Republican Party's merciless effort to turn the right to vote into a 'Survivor' episode."
"You can once again vote securely from the safety and privacy of your home," the group tweeted.