The Let RI Vote Act, co-sponsored by House Majority Whip Katherine Kazarian (D-RI District 63) and Senator Dawn Euer (D-RI District 13) aims to make the temporary changes put in place during the pandemic that made voting safer and easier permanent.
A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill took place Feb. 15. The bill now awaits review by the House State Government and Elections Committee before a floor vote can take place, said Cristin Langworthy, a voting rights activist and coordinator of the Let RI Vote Coalition.
“The hearings went fantastically,” said Madison Mandell ’22, co-founder of Brown Votes, a student organization that promotes voter participation and registration. “Our (legislative) sponsors have been working tirelessly on getting this legislation passed, and I’m feeling very optimistic,” she said.
As well as expanding the right to vote early, either in-person or by mail, the Let RI Vote Act makes the process easier, Mandell said. The bill allows voters to apply for a mail-in ballot online, requires that every community have at least one ballot drop box and sets up a permanent multilingual voter information hotline to inform voters about the process.
Brown Votes is part of the 37-member Let RI Vote Coalition that has advocated for the Let RI Vote Act, as well as voter reform more generally. Another member of the coalition is the Womxn Project, which aims to further improve human rights in Rhode Island.
“Our organization has been involved in efforts to educate Rhode Islanders about the voting process. We’ve hosted a lot of panel discussions this year to let people know what the Let RI Vote Act is and how it would expand access to the ballot,” said Tammy Brown, a director of the Womxn Project.
“I’m feeling good about this bill passing,” Kazarian said. “We feel that all the conversations we’ve had have been very productive. There are now many people on our side, but we need to keep pushing. I want this bill to pass when we return from our February break, especially considering that this is an election year.”
“Part of the reason we had record turnout in 2020 was that there were several ways to vote, and we want to make these options permanent,” Langworthy said. “We hope that we can build on the turnout from this past election cycle. These changes will make the process less intimidating and give people more flexibility.”
Currently, to vote by mail, Rhode Island General Law requires the signatures of two witnesses or one notary to attest to the voter’s identity. According to the Coalition’s website, the Let RI Vote Act would remove this requirement. Although a poll conducted by the Let RI Vote campaign reports that 60% of Rhode Islanders are in favor of removing the two witness and notary requirements to vote by mail, Sue Cienki, the Chair of the RI Republican Party, expressed concerns that this provision would increase the possibility of voter fraud.
“We believe that these requirements are necessary to make sure that the person casting the ballot is whoever they claim to be,” she said in an interview with The Herald. “These safeguards have been in place since 1950, and they don’t impose a significant burden on Rhode Islanders trying to vote by mail.”
“The Republican Party wants to make it easier to vote but harder to cheat. Changes to our elections that do not have bipartisan support could cause voters to lose faith in the integrity of the system,” Cienki added.
Adam Brandt ’24, a member of Brown Votes, argued that the Let RI Vote Act’s potential benefits outweigh the risks. “In defending election security, people often forget that the registration process is already very arduous: you need a permanent Rhode Island address and a State ID number to vote. People will still be vetted in the same way they were before,” he said.
“I would encourage anyone concerned about the signature verification process to realize that there’s a whole science to this,” Senator Euer said. “We don’t want security theater and to create an unnecessary burden on voters, which is what these regulations do.”
To protect election security going forward, the Let RI Vote Act includes provisions for voter list maintenance. According to Euer, the bill includes a provision for the Secretary of State to verify the list of Rhode Island voters four times per year. “We ran four elections during the pandemic, and there were no issues with the new provisions. We saw record numbers of people turn out to vote,” Euer said.
“We want voters to have the right to vote early in-person or by mail and not need an excuse,” she said. “This is about modernizing our process and making voting accessible to everyone.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Let RI Vote Coalition has 35 members. In fact, it has 37. The Herald regrets the error.
Clarification: A previous version of this article did not include the fact that Cristin Langworthy is a coordinator of the Let RI Vote Coalition and identified her as a women's rights activist rather than a voting rights activist.