The ACLU of Rhode Island and the Rights of Voters


Protecting Civil Liberties in Rhode Island for Over 50 Years

Court Cases

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The ACLU of Rhode Island and the Rights of Voters

The right to vote remains one of the most fundamental rights of a democratic society, and the ACLU of RI has remained vigilant in challenging government efforts to limit or impede the exercise of that right. Below are some of the voting rights cases we have been involved with over the years:

2014: Davidson v. City of Cranston

Category: Voting Rights  

This is a federal lawsuit challenging the redistricting plan adopted by the City of Cranston in 2012 for its City Counciland School Committee.  The lawsuit charges that the redistricting plan violates the one person, one vote principle of the U.S. Constitution by counting incarcerated people in their prison location as if they were all residents of Cranston. Because those incarcerated were counted as Cranston residents, three voters in the prison's district have as much voting power as four voters in every other city district.

In May 2016, a federal judge agreed with the ACLU and ordered the City of Cranston to redraw their voting lines within 30 days. In September 2016, a federal appeals court disagreed.

RELATED: The ACLU's Washington Legislative Office submitted comments to the Census Bureau on the 2020 Census Residence Rule supporting the counting of incarcerated people at their home address. The comments cite our lawsuit here in Rhode Island as well the ACLU's work in other states. 

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2009: Block v. Mollis

Category: Due Process  Rights of Candidates  Voting Rights  

Federal lawsuit challenging a state statute that requires a group seeking recognition as a new political party to collect signatures representing 5% of the voter turnout for the previous Gubernatorial election, and bars collections of those signatures in an off- election year. The court ruled the latter provision unconstitutional, and awarded attorneys’ fees.

Cooperating Attorney: Mark W. Freel

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2009: Fontes V. City of Central Falls

Category: Open Government  Rights of Candidates  Voting Rights  

Federal lawsuit challenging the disqualification of a Mayoral candidate based on a city charter provision barring voters from signing more than one nomination paper for the same political office. The court ruled the provision unconstitutional, and the General Assembly enacted a law overriding similar requirements in other municipalities.

Cooperating Attorneys: Armando Batastini, Timothy Baldwin

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2008: R.I. ACLU v. R.I. State Board of Elections

Category: Voting Rights  

RIGHTS OF VOTERS. Lawsuit challenging a Board of Elections’ regulation allowing municipalities to conduct same-day registration and voting for President and Vice-President in places instead of city or town hall, despite a statutory mandate to the contrary. Orders were entered requiring restoration of appropriate voting arrangements at each of the municipalities involved.

Cooperating Attorney: Angel Taveras

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2004: Cullen v. Town of Lincoln

Category: Rights of Candidates  Voting Rights  

Lawsuit challenging the legality of a September run-off “preliminary election” for non-partisan at-large school committee seats in Lincoln to be decided in November. A consent judgment was entered, formally declaring null and void both the “preliminary” election results and the town ordinance authorizing this election procedure.

Cooperating Attorney: Annie Goldberg

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2004: R.I. Parents for Progress v. Board of Elections

Category: Voting Rights  

Lawsuit challenging the Board of Elections’ plan to disqualify the “provisional ballots” cast by voters who registered by mail after January 1, 2003 if they failed to provide acceptable identification at the polling place. Shortly after the suit was filed, the Board reversed its position and agreed to count those ballots. 

Cooperating Attorney: John W. Dineen

2002: Metts v. Almond

Category: Discrimination  Racial/Ethnic Discrimination  Voting Rights  

“Friend of the court” brief filed on appeal in this redistricting lawsuit, arguing that the lower court used an improper legal standard in dismissing claims that black voting power on the South Side of Providence was improperly diluted by recently redrawn Senate district lines. A panel of the appellate court agreed, as did the full court upon reconsideration. The legislature then redrew the district lines, and the suit was voluntarily dismissed.

Cooperating Attorney: Jerry Elmer

2001: Bonas v. Town of North Smithfield

Category: Voting Rights  

Successful federal lawsuit challenging a town’s decision not to hold regularly-scheduled local elections in 2001, relying on the results of a 1998 referendum which authorized a change in town elections from odd to even numbered years “beginning in the year 2002.”

1996: League of Women Voters of R.I. v. R.I. State Board of Elections

Category: Discrimination  Rights of the Disabled  Open Government  Voting Rights  

Favorably settled federal lawsuit requiring the state to take immediate action to fully comply with provisions of the National Voter Registration Act, including requiring the availability of voter registration services at state-funded agencies providing assistance to people with disabilities.

1994: Ayers-Schaffner v. DiStefano

Category: Voting Rights  

Successful federal lawsuit on behalf of residents who had been barred from voting in a rescheduled primary election if they had not voted in the original, illegally conducted primary.

1993: Vote Choice v. DiStefano

Category: Privacy  Voting Rights  

Federal lawsuit successfully challenging a state law requiring that the names of people making small donations to controversial PAC’s be made public.

1992: Pitochelli v. Town of Johnston

Category: Voting Rights  

Successful federal lawsuit requiring the Town of Johnston to reapportion its city council and school committee districts after failing to do so for more than twenty years.

1984: Puerto Rican Political Action Committee v. DiStefano

Category: Discrimination  Rights of the Disabled  Voting Rights  

Successful federal lawsuit challenging, as an illegal literacy test, a complex state “verification procedure” for newly registered voters, including a blind plaintiff.

1984: Project Vote v. DiStefano

Category: Discrimination  LGBT Rights  Voting Rights  

Successful federal lawsuit on behalf of R.I. Alliance for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights and other groups denied appointment as voter registrars by state Board of Elections.

1980: Lancellotta v. West Warwick

Category: Free Speech  Voting Rights  

The first of a half-dozen successful Affiliate court challenges to town ordinances banning the posting of election signs in residential areas.

1979: R.I. Minority Caucus v. Baronian

Category: Voting Rights  

Successful court challenge to a Board of Canvassers practice of deputizing as voter registrars only persons who had been recommended by three private organizations.

1973: Capalbo v. Chariho Regional School Committee

Category: Voting Rights  

Successful lawsuit challenging a school district practice of barring persons who did not meet certain property tax qualifications from voting in the annual School District Town Meeting.