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Supreme Court deals blow to GOP in dispute over RI absentee ballots

The Supreme Court on Thursday denied the Republican Party's request that it reinstate witness requirements for absentee ballots in Rhode Island after the state agreed to waive the restrictions in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

The ruling is a rare win from the high court for advocates seeking relaxed voting restrictions in the midst of the public health crisis.

The Supreme Court issued a brief, unsigned order saying that unlike recent cases where "a State defends its own law, here the state election officials support the challenged decree, and no state official has expressed opposition."

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The court did not publish the vote tally for the order, but Justices Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasDefusing the judicial confirmation process Will the Supreme Court take ObamaCare off life-support? The overlooked significance Kamala Harris brought to the Biden-Harris ticket MORE, Samuel AlitoSamuel AlitoAlito to far-right litigants: The buffet is open No thank you, Dr. Fauci COVID-19: Justice Alito overstepped judicial boundaries MORE and Neil GorsuchNeil GorsuchSupreme Court blocks New York coronavirus restrictions on houses of worship COVID-19: Justice Alito overstepped judicial boundaries Defusing the judicial confirmation process MORE said they would have stayed a district judge's order that the witness requirements be waived for the upcoming elections.

The Rhode Island chapters of the League of Women Voters and Common Cause filed a lawsuit last month against the state's requirement that absentee ballots be signed in the presence of two witnesses or a notary, arguing that it would exacerbate the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

Just days later, the state agreed to waive the witness requirements, and a federal judge signed off on the agreement. The Republican National Committee and the Rhode Island Republican Party appealed the judge's order, but the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals rejected their efforts to block it.

"The court’s decision today affirms our assertion that voters should never have to choose between their health and their right to vote," Jane Koster, the president of League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, said in a statement. "Democracy was upheld by today’s decision. Witness and notary requirements do nothing to improve the security of our elections, and now voters can cast their ballots free from the burden of fulfilling these requirements during a deadly pandemic.”

John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, added, “We are thrilled that the Supreme Court agreed not to stay the consent decree. Because of this order hundreds of thousands of Rhode Island voters will be able to safely cast their ballots without risking their health."

Republicans in Rhode Island argued that the decision will make the upcoming state primary and general elections more chaotic. 

"We fear that this decision will create more, not less confusion this election year," the state party said. "In Alabama, a state law requiring witnesses for mail ballots is constitutional, but in another, Rhode Island, it is unconstitutional. Whether a state election law violates the U.S. Constitution now depends on the whims of your state’s election officials. The authority of state legislators in establishing election laws has been undermined."