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Still unclear if RI voters will get mail ballot applications for future elections

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – With time running out to decide whether to send mail ballot applications to voters, state and local officials are warning they need guidance and funding sooner rather than later if elections are expected to go smoothly this year.

A special task force created to focus on the upcoming primary and general elections in September and November, respectively, met remotely last week to discuss the challenges election officials currently face amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The group raised various issues, but there was widespread agreement that cities and towns are facing a shortage of funding and workers to handle the unusual burden associated with running an election during a public health crisis.

The group also warned that a decision needs to be made soon about whether all voters should get mail ballot applications, as they did leading up to the presidential preference primary on June 2.  

“To have the resources and the staffing in place in the time we have to work with, we really need decisions now – in the next few days, the next couple weeks – so that at the local level we can be prepared for whatever is coming,” Cranston elections director Nick Lima said. “We need to be in a position at the local level where there’s no way we can fail.”

Rhode Island’s Sept. 8 primary election – when parties will pick their nominees for offices from Congress to City Council – is still two months away, but logistically the wheels are in motion now to get ready.

Mail ballots – which can be sent via mail or submitted at designated dropboxes – proved wildly popular during the presidential primary, with 83% of all ballots cast by mail this year 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. The state spent $1.1 million for printing, mailing, postage and high-speed scanners during the presidential primary, according to Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea’s office. And that doesn’t account for the cost of labor that goes into creating, issuing and counting the ballots after they are returned.

The state received about $3 million through the federal CARES Act to assist with COVID-19-related election expenses, but the high cost of the presidential primary has cast a question mark over whether there’s an appetite among elected officials — some of whom are facing primary and general election opponents — to pay for two more rounds of mail ballots in September and November.

Target 12 reached out to Gov. Gina Raimondo, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio — all Democrats — for comment on whether they support sending mail ballot applications to all registered voters again.

Mattiello and Ruggerio spokespeople Larry Berman and Greg Pare said legislative leadership is mulling the idea, but pointed out that people can still vote by mail even if the state decides against sending out the mail ballot applications. Like pre-COVID elections, voters would have the ability to request the applications, but they wouldn’t come automatically.

“The Speaker and the Senate President are discussing this issue with their respective members and looking at it with open minds,” Berman and Pare said in a joint statement. “It is important to remember that any voter who wants a mail ballot can get one.”

Raimondo has not yet responded to the request for comment.

“It’s noteworthy that other states have already enacted meaningful reforms,” Lima tweeted Thursday. “RI was headed for shaky ground this election cycle due to antiquated emergency voting, write-in, and other election laws before COVID-19 was a factor. Without significant change, disaster looms.”

Massachusetts lawmakers have approved a bill that would send a mail ballot application to every voter for that state’s Sept. 1 primary. The Bay State has more high-profile primary races this year than Rhode Island, including the marquee contest between U.S. Sen. Ed Markey and Congressman Joe Kennedy as well as other congressional matchups.

For Rhode Island’s primary election, the clock is ticking, as mail ballot applications ideally should be sent to voters by July 18, which is one month before that applications must be returned. (Voters who return applications then receive an actual ballot, which would need to be filled in and submitted by primary day on Sept. 8.)

The process would then repeat itself leading up to the general election on Nov. 3, meaning mail ballot applications should go out around the same time as the primary election in September.

“We have to get going,” Gorbea, a second-term Democrat, said during the meeting of the task force, which she created.

The secretary of state’s office – which oversees the ballot process in Rhode Island – has submitted draft legislation to the General Assembly called the Safe and Healthy Voting in 2020 Act. It would require – among other things – that mail ballot applications be sent to all registered voters no less than 45 days before the elections.

The legislation has garnered support from the good-government advocacy group Common Cause Rhode Island, which points to the most recent election as proof that people like voting by mail when offered a choice.

“The global COVID-19 pandemic has upended life in the Ocean State, but we cannot let it stop our democracy,” Common Cause wrote in a letter supporting the legislation. “We need to make changes to Rhode Island elections NOW so we can be ready for the record turnout we expect this fall.”

But so far no bill has been introduced, and the draft legislation has its critics. Board of Elections vice chair Steve Erickson called it a “Christmas Tree wish list” on Twitter, arguing its lack of a more narrowed focus made it dead on arrival.

Others more broadly call into question the validity and security of mail ballots, a common concern raised by those who oppose remote voting across the country. Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Block, a long-time critic of the mail ballot process, questioned the purpose and makeup of the task force on Twitter.

“While there is plenty of practical experience with the conduct of elections in the form of representation from local boards of canvassers, etc., I do not see anyone with the background to assess either security issues or comes from a background in operations,” Block tweeted.

Block has long criticized the state’s voter rolls, which he argues is bloated with ineligible voters who have either died or left the state without notifying their local board of canvassers. For the presidential primary, the state sent out 779,463 mail ballot applications to people on its voter rolls, equaling about 91% of the adult population — a high percentage considering an average of fewer than 400,000 people have turned out to vote in the last five general elections.

For the presidential primary this year, voters returned 155,885 applications and roughly 95% of those were accepted as valid, according to the state. Despite concerns over the process, election officials argue there’s a strict authenticating process — involving two separate sets of eyes — that goes into confirming the validity of signatures on each ballot.

Erickson — whose board is responsible for verifying ballots — estimates about 7,242 mail ballot applications were rejected, and only 216 of them for “bad signature match.”

With ongoing uncertainty about how the upcoming elections will play out, the task force has scheduled a second meeting Tuesday to propose possible solutions to the issues raised during the first meeting, and to come up with contingency plans if there isn’t money allocated to send out mail ballot applications for the upcoming elections.

In the event that happens, mail ballot voting would still be available, but applications wouldn’t come automatically, meaning people would either need to request one online or visit a local board of elections to pick one up in-person.

Mail ballot advocates argue such an approach would result in fewer people taking advantage of remote voting, which could ultimately reduce turnout and push more people to vote in-person at the polls. The latter possibility does not not sit well with Gorbea in the midst of a pandemic.

“What we can’t have is large groups of people congregating that aren’t normally together,” she said.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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

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