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Rhode Island is the only “deep blue” state in the country with the kind of strict voter ID law that has disproportionately kept Black, Latino and Native American voters from casting ballots in a number of heavily Republican states. 

It will be in place for a November election even though the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, the main source of required IDs, has mostly been shut down since the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The state also has some of the most onerous rules in the country for casting absentee ballots — requiring both a witness signature and a notary certification — but they were suspended due to concerns about the pandemic after Common Cause and the League of Women Voters sued. Republicans appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court but were denied

Voting rights advocates say they will push lawmakers next year to make that reform stick.

“It’s a permanent problem, too,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The pandemic has helped demonstrate there’s lots of unnecessary barriers. … It’s demonstrated how far outside the norm our law was.”

Here’s a look at some of the most significant barriers to voting rights and access in the state: 

Absentee ballots

Rhode Island voters will be allowed this year to cast absentee ballots with no excuse and without having to gather witness and notary signatures. The state is actively encouraging it by mailing applications to every voter

But advocates have been unsuccessful in another fight over mail-in voting this year. The state isn’t budging on its requirement that ballots must arrive before polls close on Election Day to be counted. 

The ACLU state chapter and others had asked the state that ballots be counted as long as they were postmarked by Election Day, “in light of the pandemic and all the Postal Service problems this year,” Brown said.

“Many more people are voting by mail ballot than ever before,” he said. “It’s a critical way for voters to protect their health and participate in the electoral process.”

Brown is pleased, however, that the state has deployed secure drop boxes for absentee ballots at local town and city halls this year as an alternative to the mail. Voters can also drop off absentee ballots at their polling place on Election Day without waiting in line.

About this series

Stateline and the Center for Public Integrity are exploring how changes to polling places and other election shifts affect Americans’ ability to vote. Stateline is an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Go to vote.org for information on how to vote in 2020.

Voter ID

Rhode Island is among states with a strict requirement that voters present photo identification at the polls before they can cast a ballot. It must be either a Rhode Island driver’s license or voter ID card, state or federal ID card, U.S. passport, U.S. military card, student ID card from a U.S. educational institution, government-issued medical ID card, or an ID issued by a federally-recognized tribal government. 

But an added concern this year is the requirement that photo IDs must not have expired within six months of voting. Brown said that Rhode Island’s DMV has been mostly shut down since March due to the pandemic, issuing license renewals by appointment only. 

His organization will be asking Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, to issue an executive order extending that grace period to at least 9 months for the purposes of voting this November. 

Polling place access

Rhode Island is also unusual among states in the Northeast in confronting at least one issue with polling place closures that have disenfranchised voters in other parts of the country.

On Oct. 16, after the ACLU filed a complaint, the state Board of Elections overruled the city of Newport’s decision to close a polling place at a local senior center and combine it with another location.

Brown had argued that the closure would have a disproportionate impact on Black, Latino, elderly and disabled voters in the neighborhood.


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Matt DeRienzo

Matt DeRienzo is editor-in-chief of the Center for Public Integrity. Previously, he was vice president...

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