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Republicans Ask Supreme Court To Intervene In Mail-In Ballot Dispute


How far must you go to prove an absentee ballot is real? The question is important in every election. Tens of millions of people, for example, voted absentee or by mail in 2016. But because of the pandemic, more people hope to vote that way in 2020. Rhode Island wants to make it easier. It dropped a rule that required a voter to have two witnesses or a notary affirm an absentee ballot. A federal court allowed this change, but the national Republican Party would like the Supreme Court to intervene and stop it.

Nellie Gorbea is on the line. She's a Democrat and the secretary of state of Rhode Island, so she's a big voice in the state's elections. Secretary Gorbea, good morning.

NELLIE GORBEA: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What makes the witness requirement unnecessary?

GORBEA: Well, the witness requirement is unnecessary because the real security of the mail ballot is the signature itself and the verification process of the signature on that application process. So when you apply for a mail ballot in Rhode Island, your signature on that application is verified at the local level. Once you're approved for a mail ballot, it's sent to you. You do an oath envelope when you include your mail ballot - mailing it back - and...

INSKEEP: I'm sorry, an oath envelope. Can you just tell me what an oath envelope is?

GORBEA: It's an envelope that you put your ballot in that includes an oath that you swear that you're the voter, you know, upon penalty of perjury and all sorts of fines, and you sign that oath. And that signature on the oath envelope is also verified by a separate group of election officials at the state level at the Board of Elections. So that is the real security of the mail ballot system. It is not who the witnesses are, who we don't actually know who they are, or even the notary public.

INSKEEP: So you are pointing out, as other people have on this program, there are many ways to verify absentee ballots and mail-in ballots. It's a much more secure system than some people have suggested. And yet, there was this requirement. And the Republican Party is saying, come on; it's not that hard. You can find two witnesses. You have time. It could be your spouse. It could be a neighbor. It could be anybody. They would like to keep this requirement. Why not?

GORBEA: Well, no, because, really, it's not necessary for the security of the ballot. And, really, no one should have to choose between their health and their constitutional right to vote. You know, I'm going to always fight to make sure that Rhode Islanders can vote safely and securely. We're in the middle of a pandemic. We should be allowing people the options that make them comfortable and keep them safe and be able to vote.

INSKEEP: Do you believe that on the part of the Republican Party that this really is a debate over ballot security?

GORBEA: I am concerned about the Republican Party's process through state after state after state where they are filing these lawsuits that really question election processes that each state is comfortable with and that has, really, security and safety of voters at heart. I don't - I really have a problem with making it harder for people to vote using this pretense of voter fraud, which honestly has not been proven in any of the cases that they're alleging.

INSKEEP: And we should note just for the record, there've been millions and millions of people who have voted absentee or by mail with very, very limited cases of voter fraud - handfuls of ballots, really. But let me ask about the practicalities of this. If you and many other states have many more mail-in or absentee ballots, does that mean that Rhode Island is going to be unlikely to call a presidential winner on Election Night?

GORBEA: It might be possible, and - but let me focus on this. This election is unlike any other election we've ever had. And we are focused on making sure that Rhode Island voters can trust the system and that they're able to vote safely and securely. So the accuracy in the end of the count is more important than the speed of the count in this particular election.

INSKEEP: Well, I'd like to believe that, and I know that in past generations, it sometimes took many days to learn a presidential winner. But we're now in this highly tense environment where the president is demanding a result on Election Night. Do you foresee a risk of some chaos if days pass after November 3 and we're not sure who's won certain states?

GORBEA: I know that nationally, there's a lot of anxiety around the election results. I know that in Rhode Island, the Board of Elections will be working, you know, day and night to make sure that they deliver those results safely and securely and accurately to Rhode Islanders.

INSKEEP: Jamelle Bouie, columnist for The New York Times, addressed various efforts to tamp down mail-in balloting or question mail-in balloting, and he makes a suggestion in The New York Times yesterday. He says, listen; if we really care about democracy, we're just going to have to show up in person in some way, the safest way we can figure out, and vote. Would you recommend that people consider just showing up in person?

GORBEA: No. I really - again, I really want to stress that voting from home is an absolutely safe and secure way to do it. People have options in our democracy. They can vote from home. They can vote early in person in many states, including Rhode Island. And they can vote on Election Day. It's up to the voter to choose what works for them.

INSKEEP: And in a couple of words here, absentee ballots are going out in your state?

GORBEA: They will be going out very soon for the September 8 primary, yes.

INSKEEP: OK. Nellie Gorbea, secretary of state of Rhode Island, thanks so much.

GORBEA: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.