The RI General Assembly: Stymied by COVID-19 (like LITERALLY everything else in the world). - News from The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, ACLU of Rhode Island News, RIACLU News

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The RI General Assembly: Stymied by COVID-19 (like LITERALLY everything else in the world).

Posted: July 31, 2020|

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Though the regular legislative session was stymied by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Rhode Island General Assembly has gradually reconvened in the past two months to consider and pass select pieces of legislation, and has been pressed to address issues generated by the pandemic – in particular, voting rights – and by highly publicized and disturbing incidents of police brutality nationwide.

For more information about the legislative session as a whole, visit our 2020 legislative page, and for more information about the ACLU’s work during the COVID-19 pandemic, visit our COVID-19 page.

Voting Access (H 7200 A, H 7896, H 8102 A, S 2598 A)

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, voters could face significant health risks during the state primary in September and the general election in November if no alterations are made to our current voting process. In early July, in an attempt to address these concerns, several pieces of legislation – some good, some bad – were introduced in both chambers. The ACLU of RI testified in conjunction with 15 other organizations on these pieces of legislation which are detailed below.

H 7200 A – This legislation would have made crucial changes to the mail ballot process to mirror the conduct of the Presidential Preference Primary election in June, by requiring the Secretary of State to automatically send mail ballot applications to all registered voters in Rhode Island for both the September state primary and the November general election, waiving the notary or two witness signature requirement for mail ballots, and requiring statewide drop boxes at which voters could submit their mail ballot. However, in light of the fact that nearly 3,000 ballots were not counted in the Presidential Preference Primary because they arrived by mail too late, we additionally proposed an amendment to include a three-day grace period for all ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted, even if they arrive late. The bill passed the House but, unfortunately, died in the Senate.

H 7896  – We opposed this legislation due to serious deficiencies in the changes to the emergency mail ballot procedure which this bill proposed, including a voter ID requirement stricter than current law and  an inappropriate shrinking of the time frame that a voter would have to cast their emergency mail ballot. In response to those concerns, no action was taken on the bill.

H 8102 AS 2598 A  – We supported the final version of these two bills because they provide a positive alternate process to those who wish to cast their emergency mail ballot prior to Election Day by allowing a voter to fill out their emergency mail ballot application on an electronic poll book and then cast a regular ballot directly into the tabulator. This legislation has been signed by the Governor into law.  Unfortunately, these bills left in place the witness signature requirement for mail ballots, which could disenfranchise voters who live alone, are disabled, or are otherwise unable to fulfill these requirements. We encouraged amendments to match the changes made in H 7200 A, but were unsuccessful in getting them added. The ACLU is now in court challenging the retention of the witness/notary requirement for the upcoming elections.

Review of the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (S 2867)
This legislation created a legislative task force to thoroughly review the “law enforcement officer’s bill of rights.” As the entire country begins to critically reexamine the special procedural protections often given to law enforcement officials, this commission is a simple and necessary first step towards holding local police and departments accountable for their misconduct. At the same time, while supporting this proposal, we noted that it is just as important to recognize that it must be complementary to other important reform efforts, including legislation to eradicate the principle of “qualified immunity” that often allows police misconduct to go unpunished and unchecked. This task force has already held its first meeting.

Mental Health Personnel Funding (H 7171, Article 10)
Article 10 of the proposed FY 2021 budget would extend the current reimbursement funding available for the hiring of school resource officers (SROs) to the hiring of mental health professionals by public schools. We have consistently opposed statutorily created financial incentives for the hiring of SROs over other, more critically needed personnel, and supported this budget Article because it would prioritize behavioral and mental support over more punitive disciplinary punishments. Especially with the perspective of the trauma that students have undoubtedly faced over the course of the pandemic and the widespread calls for divestment from law enforcement involvement in schools, this budget article has become particularly critical.

Gender Rating in Health Insurance
Though Article 20 of the FY2021 budget would codify several protections from the Affordable Care Act into state law – ensuring that regardless of efforts on the federal level to overturn the ACA, the healthcare of Rhode Islanders is safe – it neglects to include that law’s ban on “gender rating,” a protection against health insurance rates from being determined by the gender of the person being insured. A standalone piece of state legislation to ban this practice has, through ACLU lobbying, unanimously passed the Senate for years, but the FY2021 Article omits it from the package of ACA-codified protections. We are continuing to advocate for the inclusion of a prohibition on gender rating in this Article.

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