PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Islanders would need to ditch the beach to pick party nominees if a new proposal by Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea becomes law.
Gorbea plans to file a bill that would move Rhode Island’s primary election from the second Tuesday in September – the date it’s been for decades – to the third Tuesday in August. She announced the proposal at a Board of Elections meeting on Wednesday evening.
“Since entering office, I have made it a priority to increase access to the ballot-box while ensuring the integrity of every vote,” Gorbea, a first-term Democrat, said in a statement.
“Moving the primary date makes sure that elections are more accessible to those serving our country,” Gorbea said, because it would ensure mail ballots can reach military and overseas voters in time. It would also eliminate the need to close schools because they serve as polling places.
The change would take effect for the 2020 election.
Gorbea previously floated the idea of moving the primary during a 2015 interview on Newsmakers, though until now she has not introduced legislation to make the change. Many other states hold their primaries in the spring, though Massachusetts and Connecticut also hold them later in the year.
John Marion, executive director of the good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island, said his organization has not yet taken a position on Gorbea’s proposal. “There are compelling reasons to move a primary,” he said, including the overseas voters issue.
But there could also be “unintended consequences,” Marion said.
“We don’t know whether it could potentially affect turnout by having it in August, and Common Cause is looking into that issue,” he said. “We don’t know how it would affect the public-financing system, because it would lengthen the general election, and there’s a fixed amount of money for the general election when someone participates in the public-financing system.”
Eyewitness News political analyst Joe Fleming said the chances for Gorbea’s proposal becoming a reality will depend on whether the Democratic lawmakers who have overwhelming numbers in both chambers of the General Assembly want to make a change. But he noted it’s been a topic of conversation over the years.
“People have said for years in Rhode Island that the primary’s awful late,” Fleming said.
For candidates, Fleming said, one benefit of an earlier primary is that it would give nominees more time to bring their parties back together following divisive primaries. It would also give them more time to raise money during the general election. “I think the candidates who have primaries would like it more,” he said.
It would also likely mean candidates would start campaigning seriously in April or May, earlier than they do now, Fleming suggested.Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook