CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Tens of thousands of mail ballot applications never opened by the intended recipients may provide the first step toward purging state rolls of dead voters and others who no longer live in the Rhode Island.
Nearly 102,000 ballot applications for the presidential preference primary earlier this year were returned as undeliverable, representing about 13% of the total sent out in a mass mailing aimed at making it easier to vote by mail and avoid polling-place crowds during the pandemic.
The state also waived the requirement for a notary or two witnesses to sign the oath envelope that carries the ballot.
The nearly 780,000 registered voters currently on the rolls is considered high since an average of fewer than 400,000 voters have cast ballots in the state’s last five general elections.
The mass mailing leading up the presidential primary was done out of necessity, but Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea said the returned applications could help pare down the voter list.
“That’s actually a really good sign because it allows us to begin the process to make those voters inactive and eventually remove them legally from the voter rolls,” Gorbea said.
According to Gorbea spokesperson Nick Domings, local boards of canvassers are examining the undeliverable ballots, and he said some of those voters could be added to the 75,000 who are currently on the inactive list.
Under federal law, someone deemed inactive cannot be purged until they have not voted in two straight general elections for federal office and Domings said they cannot be removed within 90 days of an election.
Former gubernatorial candidate Ken Block’s Watchdog RI organization conducted a survey of the state’s voter rolls that Block said shows bloat.
“There are hundreds of thousands of ineligible voters who have moved out and haven’t been able to vote in Rhode Island for, in some cases, decades,” Block said. “There are children who had moved out 15 years ago. Deceased individuals received mail ballot applications and they’d been deceased sometimes for decades.”
According to Block, about 2,000 dead people were on the rolls, and he claims the ballot with one of their names on it was cast in 2018 by a relative with the same name. That may have been a mistake by the poll worker, according to Domings.
Block also said he found about 200 individuals with duplicate registrations, and one allegedly voted twice in the same election in 2018.
Domings said the Secretary of State’s office is looking into the list of voters with dual registrations and the case involving the person who Block said voted twice.
Gorbea said her office has taken about 1,500 of the 2,000 deceased voters Block found off the rolls.
“We take every vote seriously,” Gorbea said. “But I am very confident in our process.”
Local board of canvassers are responsible for matching the signature on a mail ballot application to the signature of the voter on their registration before sending back a ballot.
When the ballot is eventually cast, the state Board of Elections is responsible for re-verifying the signature before the vote is counted, meaning there are two separate entities responsible for ensuring the vote is authentic.
But Block said the high percentage of mail ballots expected in the September primary, and the general election in November should be a concern, especially if some of the existing rules — like the need to have a notary present when the vote is made — are removed.
More than 80% of the June presidential primary votes were cast by mail and a similar trend is expected in the upcoming elections.
“When you don’t have clean rolls and you also remove all the safeguards you have in place, you’re opening up more avenues where people can take advantage,” Block said.
Gorbea emphasizes there have not been any convictions or arrests for voter fraud in Rhode Island for decades, and she said there are other key safeguards.
“The voter list in and of itself is not the only security to our elections,” Gorbea said. “I’m very confident in our system and our local election officials that are on the watch. Unlike Mr. Block, I have to follow federal law before we take someone off the list.”