PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Top election officials are standing by their decision not to review nomination papers amid an ongoing signature scandal, arguing they instead want more training and more time to better scrutinize any future allegations of fraud.
The R.I. Board of Elections met behind closed doors for an hour and a half to further discuss widespread reports of people saying their signatures were forged on nomination papers for Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, who is one of 12 Democrats running to represent the 1st Congressional District.
After the meeting, the board members stood by their decision not to review the signatures, arguing the state’s system of local election officials vetting the nomination papers worked. But they called for more time between when the nomination papers are submitted and when the state has to issue ballots with the names of validated candidates.
“The board faced an extremely tight deadline to certify nomination papers so the Secretary of State’s Office could print military and overseas ballots by that Saturday,” Chair Diane Mederos said after the meeting. “What is clear, at a minimum, is that the time between certification and the printing of ballots is insufficient to address any potential irregularities in nomination papers.”
The board members insisted the 728 signatures validated for Matos far exceeded the 500 candidates needed to get their names on the ballot. But they refused to acknowledge multiple people in Newport and Barrington have told Target 12 their names were signed fraudulently on Matos paperwork and subsequently validated by local election officials.
“We don’t know those names,” Vice Chair David Sholes said, despite being reminded the people have identified themselves publicly.
The board meeting came hours after Secretary of State Gregg Amore called for new legislation that would create an automatic review process if local cities and towns suspect forgery.
“The process must include the referral of the nomination papers or signatures in question to the Board of Elections for review, as well as a notification procedure through which the Board of Elections can alert other cities and towns of a potential issue,” Amore said in a statement.
Amore also renewed his call for the primary election to be held earlier in the year so his office isn’t up against federally mandated deadlines to get ballots printed, adding he’d also like to see an extended timeframe “to collect, review, and challenge signatures.”
“Over the past two weeks, we have seen how the ballot qualification process can also threaten our compliance with the deadline to issue mail ballots to military and overseas voters under federal law,” Amore said.
The Board of Election officials expressed support for an extended time to review signatures, but they did not offer an opinion on whether there should be statewide conformity or an automatic review process. Mederos said they’re interested in exploring “additional training opportunities for our local boards of canvassers partners, which will be discussed at a future board meeting.”
Common Cause Rhode Island executive director John Marion agreed more time is needed for state election officials to review signatures. But he criticized the Board of Elections for not acting quickly enough in the time allotted to scrutinize the names tied to the Matos nominations. He noted Jamestown election officials identified several discrepancies days before the board met on July 27, including signatures from three people who had been dead for years.
“My reading of the law is the state board has jurisdiction to direct the local boards and oversee the local boards and local board’s actions and I think they could have,” Marion said. “They could have earlier seen that Jamestown was the tip of the iceberg so to speak and what the media later uncovered revealed the scope of the problem. They could have acted sooner to direct those local boards to re-review the signatures.”
The signatures scandal has already spurred R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha and the R.I. State Police to launch a criminal investigation into what happened. The Matos campaign has pointed a finger at a campaign-hired vendor, Harmony Solutions, as being at the center of the issue.
The contractor is run by Holly McClaren, who told Target 12 she didn’t forge any signatures.