There is nothing more important in a free society than the right to vote. It is the defining feature of any republic. In our nation, hundreds of thousands have fought and died for it. In our state, it is sacrosanct.
Right now, state legislatures all over the country are working feverishly on voter rights laws — some are struggling to protect those rights while others are working to chip away at them by making it more difficult to vote and disenfranchising entire groups of people.
Here in Rhode Island, where we have labored to expand voting rights for almost 400 years, we’re continuing the fight. The General Assembly is hearing arguments for legislation called the “Let RI Vote Act.” The bill would expand voter access while ensuring the integrity of Rhode Island elections. To accomplish these goals, the bill makes permanent several elections provisions put in place in 2020 to protect voters during the pandemic, including wider use of mail ballots, which helped result in a record number of Rhode Islanders casting votes that year.
There is a lot of information — and misinformation — floating around about this legislation, and it’s imperative that the people of Rhode Island have a clear grasp of the proposed law that their representatives are grappling with right now. It’s time to reinforce with the people how this bill will maintain the integrity and security of our elections and debunk the myths surrounding it.
For the record, the bill does not repeal current voter ID laws, it doesn’t change the eligibility requirements to become a voter, and it doesn’t make our elections less secure. It simply makes voting more accessible to voters and encourages voting by ethnic minorities, the elderly, the disabled and the poor. Here’s how:
Prior to 2020, when special pandemic-related rules were temporarily adopted, if you wanted to vote early or by mail, you had to have an excuse and sign documents detailing the reasons. With this bill, you would no longer need to say why you want to vote a certain way. It does away with that requirement.
It provides for streamlined voting procedures to make voting by mail easier and standardizes the use of drop boxes, making them permanent throughout the state. It expands the time period in which people can request a special Braille ballot. It provides for a multilingual voter hotline so that those who are confused can seek help. It also allows people to request a mail ballot online.
It would repeal the requirement that a person wishing to vote by mail ballot obtain the signatures of two witnesses or a notary for their ballot to be valid. This is a burdensome mandate for everyone and does absolutely nothing to curb fraud, since the Board of Elections has no way to determine the validity of witness signatures on ballots.
In fact, the bill would make our elections more secure by requiring more frequent checking of voter rolls — four times a year, in fact — and use of the federal Social Security Administration’s master death list.
The history of our country has been a history of expanding voting rights. The Revolutionary War secured the right to representative government. The Rhode Island Dorr Rebellion in 1842 led to voting rights for those who do not own property. The 15th Amendment expanded voting rights to all races in 1870. The 19th Amendment expanded voting rights to women in 1920. The 26th Amendment expanded voting rights for those over the age of 18 in 1971.
Now we’re taking it all a step further and making sure that everyone gets a fair shot at the ballot box. It safeguards our most important legacy — the right to vote.
The author, Camille Vella-Wilkinson, represents District 21 in the House of Representatives. She resides in Warwick.