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Providence Ward 1 special election date up in the air

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John Goncalves is the only candidate on the ballot for the Ward 1 general election.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A special election scheduled to happen five days from now in Providence seems likely to be postponed due to the coronavirus, but disagreement remains as to when it should happen.

The Providence City Council voted Thursday night to request that the date of the special election to fill the Ward 1 council seat be moved to May 5, rather than its originally scheduled date of April 7.

The council’s resolution also requested that the election be held primarily by mail ballot. It was approved on a vote of 9 to 5.

John Goncalves won the Democratic primary for the seat in March, and is the only person on the ballot for the general election.

“If it was my choice, I would continue to have the election next week,” Council President Sabina Matos said after the meeting. “It’s just one ward, and it’s the general election, and there’s not an opponent. At the same time, I’m just following the guidelines of the governor’s executive order that calls for no gatherings of more than five people.”

The council amended the resolution Thursday night to clarify that the rescheduling is subject to public health information, and the Providence Board of Canvassers can select an alternate date in consultation with the Board of Elections, Department of Health and Providence Emergency Management Agency.

“Our preference is to keep the election on May 5,” Matos said.

It’s not yet clear if the Rhode Island Board of Elections — which is meeting Friday to discuss the matter — will approve of the new proposed date. The outspoken vice-chairman, retired judge Steve Erickson, has already expressed concern about the feasibility and safety of holding the election in early May.

“That’s only a week after the date that the regular presidential primary would have been,” Erickson said Thursday night. The Board of Elections has already voted to move the presidential primary from April 28 to June 2, in order to give staffers more time to prepare to do the election primarily by mail.

Erickson also said he was concerned about physically bringing the BOE’s voting equipment — which includes voting machines, electronic poll pads and voting booths — to the polls in Ward 1 on May 5 and then back to the BOE “so soon before the presidential primary.”

“On 5/5 we are going to be neck deep in mail ballot applications for the PPP, as well as processing returning ballots,” Erickson tweeted earlier this week. “Not good to have another election running, even with one candidate.”

Another possibility would be to hold the Ward 1 election on June 2, at the same time as the presidential primary. But some constituents in the ward — which includes parts of downtown, Fox Point and the Jewelry District — oppose delaying the election at all.

The Fox Point Neighborhood Association, in a letter to the City Council, questioned the legality of delaying the election past the window of time Providence’s city charter requires for a special election when a seat becomes vacant.

“We find it problematic — and possibly illegal — that you are considering suspending essential election activities outlined in our charter when a key provision of those activities, ie. the mail-in
ballot, appears to pose neither a physical threat to participants nor a compromise to the integrity of the electoral process,” said the letter, signed by the association’s president and vice president, Nick Cicchitelli and Daisy Schnepel. (Cicchitelli lost to Goncalves in the Democratic primary for the seat.)

“Ward One has been unrepresented for three months,” the letter continued. “We are troubled that you are considering compromising our representation due to Covid while proceeding with other Council activities despite Covid.”

Council spokesperson Billy Kepner said because the City Council called for the special election following the resignation of Seth Yurdin, it could also call for a delay under “extraordinary circumstances.” He said the decision to call for a delay was made in consultation with the city solicitor, though no formal legal opinion was written.

In this case, delaying the election would comply with Gov. Gina Raimondo’s order to limit gatherings to five people or fewer, Kepner said.

Goncalves said in an email Thursday night that he supports “any measures to keep the members of our community safe and to ultimately save lives.”

But he laid out some of the reasons the election should arguably not be delayed beyond May 5.

In part, he said, further delay would “leave a seat that represents over 14,000 residents in Providence, vacant and void of an official voice, especially considering the City Council intends to continue important business” via teleconference, such as voting on taxes and the budget.

“Pushing back the election date and keeping this seat vacant leaves Ward 1 residents susceptible to no official representation during this time of crisis and potentially much longer as we don’t know the outcome of this crisis,” Goncalves said.

Five councilors voted against the resolution to delay the election, including the two other East Side councilors — Helen Anthony and Nirva LaFortune, who often vote in tandem with the Ward 1 councilor when the seat is filled. Kat Kerwin, David Salvatore and Rachel Miller also voted against the date change.

Anthony said she voted no because of the amendment, which could potentially lead to the election being delayed even further than May 5.

“I fully supported the extension to May 5th,” Anthony said in an email. “According to the City Charter, it is the City Council’s responsibility to set the timeframe in which a vacancy must be filled.”

“While I understand that we must keep our poll workers safe, that concern has to be balanced with Ward 1’s fundamental right to be represented,” Anthony continued. “If the Board of Canvassers, the city and City Council clearly communicates that residents of Ward 1 should request an emergency mail ballot and vote by mail, instead of going to the polls, this election can take place.” 

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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