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Rhode Island changed state law this summer to remove three significant election barriers, but roadblocks including a strict voter ID requirement remain an issue, particularly for voters of color.

The Let RI Vote Act, enacted in June, allows residents to vote by mail without an excuse, drops the requirement that mail ballots be signed by two witnesses or notarized and makes permanent early in-person voting that was introduced because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Both signature waiving and no-excuse voting started as pandemic-era concessions, and were made official after voting rights advocates pushed for permanent changes.

Common Cause Rhode Island and the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island sued the state to strip signature requirements for good.

The signature mandate, in addition to being a complicated process for the average voter, created an undue burden for lower-income people and those with disabilities or health conditions who were homebound and did not have access to two witnesses or a notary. 

“It was waived in 2020 and for fall elections, and sure enough, we set a record for number of mail ballots,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “Part of that is that it was the height of the pandemic. But we think we’re going to see a permanent shift in an increase of voting by mail.”

About this series

This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

Voter ID

Rhode Island stands out as one of the only heavily Democratic states to enforce strict voter ID rules that advocates say were traditionally designed to disenfranchise people of color. Voters must present an in-state driver’s license or permit, a voter ID card, passport, an ID issued by a U.S. educational institution, military ID, ID card issued by the United States or Rhode Island, a medical card or a tribal ID in order to cast a ballot at the polls.

Democratic state Sen. Tiara Mack, who has fought to repeal the law, said Rhode Island’s voter ID requirements prevent as many as 85,000 residents from voting, many of whom are people of color.

“It is a racist and restrictive law,” Mack has said. “It is grounded in a history of exclusionary practices in states in the Deep South that have used voting laws to prevent Black and brown people from voting.”

But any effort to loosen the restrictions will face an uphill battle, Marion said. 

“There have been bills put in to repeal the voter ID laws, but it hasn’t been a priority in the voting rights community because it’s very popular in the legislature,” Marion said. “It would be difficult to get them to repeal it.”

Mack’s repeal bill died in committee this year.

Anyone who does not have an accepted form of ID has the right to request a provisional ballot – but that right is not consistently offered and-or granted by poll workers, Marion said. 

Voter registration

Rhode Island’s voter registration requirements also stand in contrast to other heavily Democratic states that allow residents to register up until and on Election Day. In Rhode Island, online and in-person registration must occur at least 30 days before Election Day, and mail registration must be postmarked at least 30 days prior. The only exception is presidential elections.

This is “by far the biggest obstacle” for Rhode Island voters, Marion said. 

“Thirty days is the longest that’s allowed by Supreme Court precedent,” Marion said. “It is well-known that allowing people to vote up until and on Election Day increases turnout. Our registration deadline is our biggest structural barrier.”

Indeed, studies show same-day registration increases turnout, particularly for voters of color and young voters. One study that examined 32 states found same-day registration increased Black voter turnout an average of two to17 percentage points, and increased turnout for Latino voters by an average of 0.1 to 17.5 percentage points.

But like Rhode Island’s voter ID law, advocates fear the registration deadline will be difficult to change. It was written into the state constitution when the voter registration process was entirely paper-based and more time was needed to get the names on the printed poll book used on Election Day.

“Now, the voter file is a database on the computer and the book is an iPad,” Marion said. “You don’t need 30 days to process the paper, it can be done instantaneously. But to change it would mean amending the constitution.”

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Lindsay Kalter is a Michigan-based freelance reporter. Her work has appeared in publications including...