PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. Board of Elections plans to start releasing mail ballot results on a rolling basis at 11 p.m. on election night, a change in policy made in light of the enormous rise in voting by mail due to the pandemic.
The elections board voted unanimously to make the change at a meeting Monday afternoon.
Bob Rapoza, executive director of the Board of Elections, said more than 126,000 mail ballots have been returned so far out of roughly 175,000 requested. An additional 71,000 early votes have been cast as of Monday afternoon, according to the secretary of state’s office.
The first tranche of counted mail ballots will be released online at 11 p.m. on election night, Rapoza said, after the board has posted polling place votes and in-person early votes.
That first release will include all the mail ballots tabulated by that time, he said. It will not include any ballots that were dropped off on Election Day in more than 400 drop boxes across the state, since those will not yet have made it over to the Board of Elections headquarters in Cranston.
The following day — Wednesday, Nov. 4 — the board will do a second release of mail ballot results.
A third release will happen once all mail ballots are counted, Rapoza said. Since voters are given seven days to fix any deficiencies in their mail ballot (such as a signature issue), there will be a fourth release of any remaining mail ballot results the week after the election, he said.
The Board of Elections had previously waited until all mail ballots were tabulated before releasing the results all at once, often multiple days after the election. Mail ballots rarely impacted the outcome of a race pre-pandemic unless it was very close, since the vast majority of voters were casting ballots in person.
A notable exception was the 2016 General Assembly race between Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Republican Steve Frias, where Mattiello won by just 85 votes, only after the mail ballots were counted days after the election.
But the counting of mail ballots has become ever more crucial to the outcome of the election this year because so many people chose to vote by mail as a safer option than going to the polls. A court case earlier this year also led to the removal of a prior requirement to get two witnesses or a notary sign a mail ballot, which made it easier to vote from home.
For Rhode Island’s presidential primary in June, the mail ballot results were not released until three days after the election. In the statewide primary in September, the mail ballot results were released two days after the election.
Rapoza said last week the board is planning to first release election night results from the in-person polling places, which transmit unofficial results from their ballot machines to the elections board when the polls close at 8 p.m.
Then, Rapoza said, the machines that have been counting early in-person ballots cast at city and town halls will transmit their results to the Board of Elections, to be posted online around 10 p.m. (These will be referred to as “emergency ballots” on the website.)
Rhode Island voters can continue to cast their ballots early at their town or city halls until Nov. 2, or can vote in person at their assigned polling places on Nov. 3.
Mail ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3 to be counted. The Postal Service has said to give at a least a week for the ballots to be mailed, so state elections officials recommend voters drop them off in ballot boxes across the state to be sure they are received in time for Election Day.
Ballot boxes are currently located outside the Board of Elections’ headquarters in Cranston and at city and town halls in almost every municipality, other than in Central Falls and East Greenwich where they were placed at the police station. On Election Day there will also be drop boxes for mail ballots at every polling place that is open.