PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Islanders are unlikely to receive mail ballot applications for the September primary election the way they did for last month’s presidential primary, and voting-rights advocates argue the change could stifle turnout and favor incumbents.
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea’s special task force created to discuss the challenges of running pandemic-era elections voted Thursday to send a series of recommendations to the General Assembly, including a proposal to send voters postcards instead of mail ballot applications ahead of the primary.
A day earlier, the R.I. Board of Elections went a step further, approving a recommendation to not send mail ballot applications ahead of the Sept. 8 primary election, citing a lack of time and demand.
“I’ve been concerned about the relatively limited amount of time between now and the primary,” said outgoing Vice Chairman Steven Erickson during the Board of Elections meeting. “Given not every community has a primary, and the primaries are historically much less attended by voters, it would seem like not a good idea to send out mail ballot applications.”
The moves made by the task force and the board make it highly unlikely the state will repeat what happened leading up to the presidential preference primary on June 2 when election officials sent mail ballot applications to every registered voter.
But not everyone agreed with the decision.
Cristin Langworthy, a public member of the task force, said not sending mail ballot applications would likely limit access to voting, which she argued should be expanded during a time of crisis. She also pointed out that primary elections are often more relevant than general elections in states like Rhode Island that are dominated by one party.
The vast majority of primary races on the Sept. 8 ballot are in the Democratic Party, which controls most levers of government across Rhode Island — meaning many incumbents face a bigger risk from losing a primary than losing in November.
“I would encourage a solution to secure the funding necessary to do a mass mailing,” Langworthy said about applications for the primary. “The September primary is where most races are made.”
The sentiment was echoed by John Marion, executive director of the good-government nonprofit Common Cause Rhode Island, who said the secretary of state’s decision not to send out mail ballot applications would be “extremely disappointing.” He pointed to Massachusetts, where lawmakers just passed a law to send mail ballot applications to every voter for its Sept. 1 primary.
Unlike Rhode Island, Massachusetts has multiple hard-fought congressional primaries on the ballot Sept. 1 — notably the marquee U.S. Senate contest between Ed Markey and Joe Kennedy, as well as U.S. House races such as the primary in the 4th Congressional District along the Rhode Island border.
Marion said the Board of Elections “turned its back on voters” when it unanimously supported the idea that voters should not be sent mail ballot applications.
“Not sending applications will burden voters, especially the elderly, suppress turnout, and force some Rhode Islanders to choose between their health and their right to vote,” he added. “Likewise, this decision will benefit incumbent incumbent politicians.”
Marion called the rationale to not send out applications for the primaries because voting would be lower in some communities “laughable.” He pointed to Cranston, the state’s second-largest city, which has competitive Democratic and Republican primaries for its open mayor’s office. (Republican incumbent Allan Fung is term-limited.)
“Rhode Island is among the most one-party-dominated states in the nation — the primary is the only competitive local election most voters will face,” Marion said.
Mail ballots – which can be sent via mail or submitted in person at designated drop boxes – proved popular during the presidential primary, when 83% of all ballots cast came by mail, compared to 3% in 2016 and 8% in 2012, according to results posted by the R.I. Board of Elections.
But the process is also expensive, costing the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in printing, mailing and postage alone. And time is running short, as applications would ideally go out to voters by July 18, which is one month before they’re due back.
The state spent about $1.1 million on the presidential primary, leaving nearly $2 million left over from the $3 million in federal CARES Act funding provided to assist with COVID-19-related election expenses.
Despite the extra funding, election officials for more than a month have balked at the idea of repeating the mail ballot application process – at least for the primary election. The task force did recommend sending mail ballot applications to voters ahead of the general election on Nov. 3.
The task force’s proposed postcards for the primary election would include information about how to request a mail ballot application, which – like pre-COVID-19 elections – is accessible either online or in person at local boards of canvassers.
Beyond the issue of mail ballot applications, the task force’s other proposals included eliminating witness signatures and notary requirements for mail ballot voting, implementing 20 days of early voting and allowing mail ballots to be postmarked on Election Day.
The proposals — which would require legislative action — closely resemble draft legislation Gorbea submitted for consideration a month ago. That proposal garnered the support of voting-rights groups – including Common Cause Rhode Island – but no lawmaker so far has introduced a bill.
“There are many other decisions that need to be made immediately by the legislature and election administrators to avoid calamity in the fall elections, and not do more to disenfranchise voters,” Marion said.
When asked during the Wednesday meeting whether she had received any indication from top lawmakers as to whether they would support the task force’s recommendations, Gorbea said she’d been in discussions with both legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo’s office.
“I spent a lot of time on the phone today to impress on our legislative leaders that these matters are coming fast and furiously,” Gorbea said.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, both Democrats, said through spokespeople that they are reviewing the task force’s recommendations. But Mattiello’s spokesperson said earlier this week that the secretary of state’s office “does not have the authority to send all voters a mail ballot application.”
Raimondo’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday evening.
“I don’t have assurances yet,” Gorbea said.