PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s House Democratic leadership is throwing its weight behind a bill to send all voters a mail ballot application for the upcoming primary and general elections, a win for advocates who say the policy will make it safer to vote during the pandemic.
An amended bill scheduled for a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday says “every qualified voter shall be deemed to be eligible to vote by mail” in Rhode Island this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The secretary of state shall cause a mail ballot application to be delivered in a timely fashion to every qualified voter,” the bill says.
The emergence of the legislation, sponsored by House Deputy Majority Whip Chris Blazejewski, marks a new development in an ongoing State House tug-of-war over how to conduct the upcoming elections.
Every voter was sent a mail ballot application for last month’s presidential primary, which led to a sharp increase in turnout — suggesting the same could happen if applications were mailed proactively for the Sept. 8 statewide primary and Nov. 3 general election.
Up to now, legislative leaders have appeared resistant to demands that they allow a proactive mailing of applications again for the September primary — which could complicate the turnout math for some endangered incumbent lawmakers. But the decision to post the amended House bill for a hearing suggests House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s leadership team has come around to the idea.
But Senate President Dominick Ruggerio quickly announced his opposition to the bill.
“Any Rhode Islander who wants a mail ballot can request one,” Ruggerio spokesperson Greg Pare said in an email. “Mailing an unsolicited ballot application and a subsequent mail ballot to every Rhode Islander would be an extraordinary expense during very difficult fiscal times. The process is inefficient, with more than 600,000 ballot applications unreturned during the Presidential Preference Primary, and more than 1,600 votes not counted.”
Pare added, “It is unnecessary and fiscally imprudent to take on this large expense when every voter who wants to vote by mail already has that option available to them.”
In a statement, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea noted she proposed mailing all voters an application a month ago, saying she is looking at “ensuring that voters can participate in a safe and secure manner despite the pandemic.”
“Implementing the major changes needed to shift to predominantly mail ballot elections at this time will be challenging,” she said. “However, Rhode Island has some of the best elections officials in the country, including my staff, the Board of Elections and our local boards of canvassers.”
Common Cause Rhode Island and other groups have led the advocacy for a universal mailing, the same policy Massachusetts lawmakers recently approved for this year’s primary and general elections in the Bay State.
Common Cause executive director John Marion said the House bill “appears to take many of the necessary steps to protect the health of voters that advocates have been seeking for months.” Marion noted the bill would also centralize the processing of mail ballots and waive the requirement for two witnesses or a notary to sign the ballot envelope.
However, he said, “While it is a good sign that the House is taking the issue seriously enough to introduce this bill, we are a long way from seeing this legislation signed into law by Governor Raimondo and will save our praise until it becomes law.”
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook