With 1 day left, ’emergency’ mail ballots for RI primary up from 2014

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Voters cast their ballots in Pawtucket on Election Day 2016_380928

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island voters are making heavy use of a state law that allows them to cast their votes early for Wednesday’s primary at city and town halls.

Voters statewide had cast 2,322 so-called “emergency” mail ballots as of 4:30 p.m. Monday, already surpassing the 2,243 total during the last gubernatorial primary in 2014, according to Joe Graziano, a spokesman for Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea.

Voters have until Tuesday at 4 p.m. to use a last-minute mail ballot instead of going to their local polling places on Wednesday.

Rhode Island has long allowed voters to cast an emergency mail ballot in the 20 days prior to an election if they could provide a valid excuse, such as out-of-state travel. But in 2011 lawmakers liberalized the rules, saying voters only needed to attest that they might not be able to make it on election day in order to be eligible.

That has led to a surge in the use of mail ballots, whether applied for on time or obtained at the last minute, according to John Marion, executive director of good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island. He said the number jumped from roughly 20,000 in 2008 to roughly 40,000 in 2016.

“We have, in practice, ‘no-excuse’ early voting,” Marion said, noting that the secretary of state’s office and a number of municipalities have been promoting the option more aggressively in recent years.

Terri Bucci of the Cranston Board of Canvassers said that city has had 158 emergency mail ballots so far, which she said she suspected is higher than in the 2014 primary. She recalled that Cranston experienced an unexpected spike in requests ahead of the November 2016 election.

“We were not prepared for that,” she said.

The overall number of mail ballots is also up. Graziano said 6,265 mail ballots were sent out for this year’s primary, compared with 5,603 four years ago. A little more than half of those had been returned as of Monday afternoon, he said.

Marion cautioned against reading the numbers as an indication of how high overall voter turnout will be on Wednesday. He noted that in states which have fully embraced early voting, political scientists have generally found it changes when people cast their ballots but does not lead to an overall rise in turnout.

“We have this sort of secular change in how people vote occurring in the state, where people are increasingly using emergency mail ballots as de facto ‘early voting,’ so that makes it difficult to see this is going to be a higher turnout election,” Marion said.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) 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

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