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COVID-19 made it easier to vote by mail, but is fraud easier too?

Target 12

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) ─ COVID-19 prompted an executive order that waived certain mail ballot requirements to reduce polling place crowds during the presidential primary, but critics claim those changes could also open the door to fraud.

Accusations of mail-ballot chicanery seem to come up during every election cycle, most recently in the 2016 race for District 15 in Cranston.

Republican Steven Frias was leading House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello on election night by 147 votes, with 714 mail-ballots left to count.

But on election night Mattiello declared victory.

“I know that we’re going to be up a minimum net of 300,” Mattiello said. “So, we won the race. There’s no question.”

Frias and other had plenty of questions.

“How would you know how many votes you have?” Frias asked at the time. “Did you manipulate these ballots?”

State police investigated but said they did not find any evidence of voter fraud.

In previous years, two witnesses or a notary were required to sign what’s known as the oath envelope that was used to mail the actual ballot.

Governor Gina Raimondo signed an executive order to waive those requirements for the June primary to allow voters to avoid polling place crowds during the pandemic.

Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea is recommending the same waiver for the September primary and the general election in November. Putting those waivers in place would require action from the General Assembly or another executive order.

Gorbea told Target 12 the process is secure even without the witness and notary requirements due to a two-step verification process that was used for presidential primary mail ballots.

She said signatures are reviewed by local boards of canvassers, who compare them to the voters’ signatures that are on record.

Board of Elections personnel inspect the signatures on the oath envelope.

“So, you have different sets of people, non-partisans, all political parties involved in what is really a very open and transparent system,” Gorbea said.

Former Gubernatorial Candidate Ken Block, a frequent critic of the state’s election process expressed concern about whether election workers checking the signatures are trained well enough.

Board of Elections Executive Director Robert Rapoza said BOE employees are trained in signature analysis, but Block remains skeptical about training for local boards of canvassers employees.

He also said with far more mail ballots expected in the upcoming elections, there’s a greater opportunity to steal an election.

“You have a lot of mail ballot applications floating around that can be intercepted,” Block said. “If a campaign wanted to ensure votes, they will stand over the shoulders of some voters to get the votes that they want.”

Gorbea emphasizes that sort of influence is a felony, and she said there have been no criminal charges involving voter fraud in the state for decades.

“What I say to someone who believes there is some sort of fraud is, report it,” Gorbea said. “I want to make sure that Rhode Islanders know that we will investigate every single case of alleged voter fraud that they might put forward. I want to encourage them to encourage them to call my office.”

Block said he has called in past, but he added he is skeptical about how thorough the state investigated his previous claims.

He said voters should also be concerned about what he said was uncovered by his organization Watchdog RI.

According to Block, the investigation found a state voter roll bloated with dead people and others who have not lived in the state for year, as well as hundreds of voters who recieved more than one ballot application during the state’s presidential primary mass-mailing.

“From a system security standpoint because we have really dirty data, you make the possibilty of something happening more likely than less likely,” Block said. “Several secretaries of state have failed to clean this up.”

Gorbea disagreed with Block’s analysis that the voter roll is “dirty,” but said she will look at his data and remains confident in the system.

“The voter list in and of itself is not the only security to our elections,” Gorbea said. “Our elections are also secured by a number of state and local election offiicials. that are on the watch to make sure our elections run smoothly.”

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.

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

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