Rhode Island Secretary of State Sees Opportunity in Primary Delay to June 2

March 27, 2020 by Dan McCue

Less than a week after Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo approved a board of elections request to move the state’s presidential primary from April 28 to June 2, a plan to have a mostly mail-in election in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak is already taking shape.

It calls for dramatically expanding the state’s existing vote-by-mail process, while also significantly reducing the number of in-person polling places that will be open on primary day from an original 182 to less than 50.

The task of pulling it off falls on the shoulders of the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office and its board of elections, separate entities that have long shared responsibilities when it comes to elections.

The rapid scale-up to a larger role for mail-in voting “is not as crazy as it sounds,” Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea told The Well News Thursday afternoon.

“We actually have the framework in place. We just need to tweak it,” she said.

Gorbea had just come out of a meeting with Rhode Island Board of Election officials, and sounded excited as she described what had transpired.

“I think this crisis has given us an opportunity to streamline things and hopefully show that it’s possible to rely on a large-scale mail in ballot process in our state,” she said.

It should be noted that Rhode Island typically divides responsibilities for its elections.

The secretary of state’s office is in charge of ballot design, layout and coding; sending out mail ballots; certifying candidates; and overseeing procurement for voting equipment.

The state board of elections, meanwhile, packages equipment, supplies and precinct tabulators and delivers them to each city/town before the election; troubleshoots technical issues on Election Day; and receives and tabulates statewide results.

In addition, local boards of canvassers help in the counting of the vote.

Rhode Island has had mail-in voting for some time. In fact, in 2016, just over 7,000 state residents voted that way. This year, before the primary was postponed, more than 8,000 voters had already mailed in their ballots.

State board of elections officials estimate – and frankly, hope — that this year, anywhere from 80,000 to over 100,000 people will take advantage of their ability to vote by mail in the state.

Their reason is simple: More voting by mail means fewer poll workers and voters interacting at the polls and potentially spreading the virus.

Gorbea said while individual counties have long used social media to encourage voters to vote by mail, the outreach effort will now be much more organized.

“Instead of a piecemeal effort, you’ll now have the state communicating directly with every registered voter in the state,” she said.

Gorbea said for the first time ever, the state will mail a ballot application to every single person in the Rhode Island voter registration database.

“You’ll get this in your mailbox, along with an explanation as to why this is happening and what you need to do, and any registered voter who sends the application back, will get a ballot in the mail,” she said.

Not that there aren’t significant changes that go along with this.

For instance, in anticipation of carrying out a primary under ordinary circumstances, the state had leased 460 individual ballot-counting machines for use in its polling places. Now, it’s cancelling a number of those leases to bring in additional high-volume machines to count the expected mountain of mail-in ballots the board of elections will receive.

Gorbea said there will be an increased cost associated with the transition, but she said she expected Rhode Island’s portion of the reported $400 million included in the federal economic stimulus package on Friday will defer some of it.

“Four-hundred million is not nearly enough given what states need to do in terms of this year’s elections, but in the case of Rhode Island, that money will definitely help,” she said.

In addition to Rhode Island, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, and Ohio have all delayed their Democratic primaries since the coronavirus outbreak began.

New York officials also are considering delaying that state’s April 28 primary.

Because mail-in votes are counted ahead of election day — the talk in Rhode Island right now is to expanding the number of days before the primary they are counted from the current 14 to 20 — Miguel Nunez, deputy director of elections at Rhode Island’s Board of Elections, believes the state’s two high speed counters are more than up to the task of processing the votes.

What concerns Nunez is getting the ballots to the machines. 

“Each of these votes has to go through a certification process,” he explained. “Under normal circumstances, the mailed-in ballot is received and then opened in a public setting, and then the signature on the envelope is compared — by a representative of each party — to the voter signature on the ballot application.

“As you can imagine, it’s a very labor intensive process,” Nunez said. “So it is entirely possible we’ll have to increase our staffing levels to accommodate the increased number of ballots.”

At the same time, he said, because of the social distancing requirements that have come with the fight against the virus, it’s not clear at this time whether the facility the board ordinarily uses to count the vote will be suitable.

“It’s likely that we could simply move to a larger space in another part of the building, but we still have to ensure that we don’t have too many people gathering, counting ballots in an enclosed space,” he said.

Nunez sees the closure of polling places due to the coronavirus as a similar shift of location and resources.

“Because of the virus, of course, it’s simply inappropriate to use places we’ve used in the past, like spaces in senior centers and nursing homes, or those located in high rises,” he said. “At the same time, you need to provide people who either can’t or prefer not to vote by mail a chance to have their voice heard.

“Because our goal is to get almost everyone to send in a mail ballot, we think we can successfully accommodate the remaining voters with easy access polling places in our cities and towns,” he said.

“That’s why we’re mandating that there be at least one polling location is each of these,” he added.

Reflecting on the primary campaign season so far, a season that began with computer meltdowns in Iowa, proceeded through a a last-minute cancellation of a vote in Ohio, and will conclude with a rash of postponed elections in June, Gorbea admitted the only thing you can do as an election official is try to take it all in stride.

“This has been an unusual election cycle, definitely,” she said. “But it’s also exciting because this kind of crisis gives us an opportunity to rethink the way we do things.

“A lot of times in government, you don’t have that opportunity,” she continued. “So part of me is actually excited about the possibility of changing things and showing people that you can hold an election in a different, hopefully simpler way, and increase access to the ballot box while still protecting the integrity of every vote.”

“And what I hope in the long run is that we’ll be able to absorb the successes of this experience and make them a part of how we run future elections in the state,” Gorbea said.

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