EAST GREENWICH – All across the nation, communities are seeing historic, record-breaking numbers when it comes to voter turnout, and East Greenwich was no different.
According to Town Clerk Leigh Carney, as much as 78 percent of the eligible voters in East Greenwich may have cast a ballot this year – be it from the polling place, by mail or at town hall.
In the presidential race, by Carney’s count and information available from the Rhode Island Board of Elections, 2,186 residents voted at the polls, 3,257 residents voted by mail, and 3,109 residents cast their ballot at town hall.
More than 8,500 ballots were cast in a town with roughly 11,000 registered voters.
“Voting went off without a hitch,” Council Vice President Mike Donegan said on Monday night, commenting on the lines at town hall and the number of mail ballots that had been requested.
Words of thanks and congratulations were also extended by his fellow council members, as well as Town Manager Andrew Nota.
“Overall, I think it went very well, considering it was a historic event as far as voter turnout is concerned,” Carney told the council.
There’s still a long path to certification, however. From what Carney has been able to glean from the board of elections so far, the voting numbers may continue to change between now and the end of the month. This Tuesday was the deadline for any and all recount requests, and it was also the deadline for counting provisional and deficient ballots.
This Thursday is the deadline for all military and overseas ballots to be counted.
By Friday or Monday, deficient ballots that could be verified will be counted and added to the results. Any recount requests will also be taking place this coming Monday.
During the week of Thanksgiving, by state law, the Rhode Island Board of Elections is required to undergo a risk-limiting audit, according to Carney.
“The end of the month is the best date we’re looking at right now for certification,” she said. “I would expect that in future meetings we’ll start talking about the swearing in of officers and what the inauguration might look like in a pandemic.”
Things went smoothly at the polls last Tuesday, according to Carney, and that’s largely thanks to the poll workers who volunteered to assist with the election.
“These are people from within our community who stepped up during a pandemic,” Carney said. “It goes without saying how much that is appreciated.”
From what she saw, campaigning was also done professionally and respectfully. Donegan credits this, in part, to Carney helping to set the tone and letting everyone know what to expect.
“Everyone was very cordial,” Donegan said. “It was just a very different tenor at a time when you would’ve expected temperatures to run even hotter than the last election.”
“This time, in my experience, you guys had set the stage, the expectations were clear, the board of elections and everybody laid out what the rules were,” he added reflecting back to the last election. “I just think we’ve learned something as a community.”
He also praised the efforts to have a drop box placed outside the police station to add an extra level of security and reassurance for the voters. During an election that fell under a high level of scrutiny on all sides, Donegan was pleased to have been able to drop his own ballot outside the police station.
In light of the pandemic, there were a number of significant changes to the election process, Nota noted, and the staff in the town clerk’s office was able to take them all in stride while dealing with the rest of their day-to-day responsibilities.
“I know it looked great from the outside, but it was stressful and it was really hard,” Carney said. “I’m not going to hide that. I’m glad that it looked well, but it’s because my staff is awesome.”
“The amount of phone calls that came in, in-person visits – we had to handle so much paperwork that came from who knows where – so there was a risk of exposure we were all willing to accept and we were careful about it,” she said. “We are public servants and that’s what we’re here to do, all the while juggling everything else that goes on in the office.”
It’s never a one person job, Carney added, sharing the huge amount of pride she has for her staff, for handling this with grace and dignity.
Council President Mark Schwager, Councilwoman Renu Englehart and Councilwoman Caryn Corenthal also echoed similar words of gratitude and thanks toward Carney and her staff.
While dealing with the stresses of an election, the town clerk’s office was also working with local businesses to renew alcoholic beverage licenses – a heavy lift that was months in the making – which was approved by the council on Monday.
That evening, Nota also addressed the council about new advisory restrictions from Gov. Gina Raimondo around preventing the spread of COVID-19. New curfews will eat into businesses hours, but there will be relief funds available to restaurants that suffer financially because of this decision.
While local businesses have been able to “Take It Outside” and benefit from grants, Nota also shared another disappointing setback for restaurants on Main Street. Future plans to continue closing down a portion of Main Street each Sunday afternoon will not be able to move forward, according to Nota.
“That program started off a bit rocky, I will say, in the fact that we did not initially receive RIDOT (Rhode Island Department of Transportation) approval to actually close Main Street,” Nota said. “The main reason being that it’s Route 1 – it’s a numbered, federal highway.”
“That, in and of itself, brings to light significant regulatory, state and federal restrictions of what you can and can’t do in the roadway,” he added.
Many departments, far more than just his own office and the local chamber of commerce, came together to make these events possible.
“We ended up having eight weeks of Sundays – I think all generally successful in terms of providing a safe environment,” Nota said.
Despite efforts to expand barricades and address concerns, RIDOT has determined that it won’t be permitted to continue using the parking lane shoulder.
“I think we’ve heard that echoed from all of the businesses that it worked out far better than they ever anticipated,” Nota said. “And I think, for many people that I’ve spoken to, who had the opportunity to frequent any of those restaurants, because the weather was fantastic as well, really, just thoroughly enjoyed the experience.”
“I’m bringing this up tonight because it’s all coming to an end in the early morning hours tomorrow,” he added.
As successful as the program was, and as disappointed as the business owners who’d been hoping to continue pushing through with the warm fall weather, things have to be wrapped up, according to Nota.
There are hopes that a similar program might be possible in the spring or future years, he said.
A huge part of the disappointment comes from the community believing they’d “dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s” when it came to providing a safe environment.