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Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea speaks at an event in support of the Let RI Vote Act. 

PROVIDENCE – A record number of voters, many of them casting ballots by mail, turned out for the 2020 General Election. Spurred by a new, pandemic-inspired system that opened up access, Rhode Island saw not only traditional, in-person voting on Election Day, but mail ballots and voting during early, emergency periods at polling places.

Now, some local lawmakers are trying to make the changes permanent, seeing the new methods as greatly expanding access to voting and a means to modernize the state’s existing and conventional election laws.

“I think in Rhode Island, just like in a lot of places, we get stuck in the ‘this is the way it’s always been done, so why would we change it?’ mindset,” said Senator Alana DiMario (D-Dist. 36, North Kingstown and Narragansett). “I think that it’s one of the things where once you see this really works, it would make sense. It’s hard to imagine what it would look like until you have the opportunity to try it, and now we have.”

Rhode Island Senate bill 0516 and House bill 6003, named the “Let RI Vote Act,” would, among other things, make mail ballots and early voting periods a permanent voting method in the state. Baked into the identical bills is a detailed process to protect against voter manipulation and duplicate ballots. An accompanying bill, S 0569, would also put to voters in the next election the elimination of an existing law that a Rhode Island resident must be registered 30 days prior to an election in order to vote.

S 0516 is co-sponsored by local Senators DiMario and Susan Sosnowski (D-Dist. 37, New Shoreham and South Kingstown). H 6003 is co-sponsored by local Representative Kathleen Fogarty (D-Dist. 35, South Kingstown).

More votes were cast in Rhode Island for the 2020 General Election than ever before. Data shows 317,663 votes in the state were cast by mail and emergency ballots for the presidential election, with many of them going to Joe Biden. In total, 517,757 individuals in Rhode Island voted for a presidential candidate in November, up from 2016’s total of 464,144 votes.

Nationally, the 2020 General Election saw the largest voter turnout in over a century.

“These methods were extremely popular and people liked them,” said DiMario. “I was at an event with Secretary [Nellie] Gorbea last week and she said something that I think really sums this up which is ‘elections are about the voters.’ That idea that if in current times, we have the technology to allow for early in-person voting and sending mail ballot applications for people who want them, why would we not do that if the voters are liking it? As somebody who is elected to represent what the people want, if that is what the people want, then that is how I want to make our elections go.”

The bills, each 36 pages long, lay out a stringent process to codify mail ballots into the state’s voting laws. Legally qualified electors can apply for a mail ballot in the weeks leading up to an election and even sign up to become a permanent mail voter, with the Rhode Island Secretary of State maintaining a database of qualified voters opting for this method. The local board of canvassers will maintain a separate list of names and addresses of all mail ballot applicants and a copy of the list will be made available for the public, the proposed bills also read.

Any person who knowingly and willfully submits false information, signs the name of another or interferes with the mail ballot application and submission process would be guilty of a felony under the new laws.

A mail ballot application will be approved if it meets state and local requirements and will be verified by signature. The authenticity of mail ballots in 2020 was largely and baselessly challenged by former President Donald Trump and many Republican candidates across the country in his wake.  

The proposed legislation for Rhode Island further details the manner in which mail-in ballots would be stored, tabulated and counted.

“Beginning prior to and continuing on election day the state board, upon receipt of mail ballots, shall keep the ballots in a safe and secure place that shall be separate and apart from the general public area and shall, beginning 20 days prior to and continuing on election day, proceed to certify the mail ballots. Notice of these sessions shall be given to the public on the state board of elections' website, the secretary of state's website, and announcements in newspapers of general circulation published at least 24 hours before the commencing of any session. All candidates for state and federal office, as well as all state party chairpersons, shall be given notice by telephone or otherwise of the day on which ballots affecting that candidate's district will be certified; provided, that failure to effect the notice shall in no way invalidate the ballots.”

Voters, candidates, political representatives and the press would be allowed to witness the certification of mail ballots under the law.

It also lays out a process for determining the validity of mail ballot signatures.

“At these sessions, and before certifying any ballot, the state board shall (1) Determine the city or town in which the voter cast his or her ballot and classify accordingly; and (2) Compare the name, residence, and signature of the voter with the name, residence, and signature on the ballot application for mail ballots file in the central voter registration system and satisfy itself that both signatures are identical,” the bill states.

If a voter’s signature on their ballot does not appear to match the signature on file in the state’s central voting system for that individual, a pair of election supervisors, who are not affiliated with the same political party, will confer. If both supervisors agree the signature is not a match, the ballot will be set aside. Statewide standards for signature verification would also be established and made available by the Rhode Island Board of Elections.

Those who have applied for mail ballots can still vote in person as long as their mail ballot is surrendered at the polls.

“The states that make mail ballots most accessible include states like Utah,” said John Marion, Executive Director of Common Cause Rhode Island, an organization that makes its mission government accountability.

Utah, despite being traditionally a Red state, has enjoyed voting by mail since 2013. The state was influenced by Oregon, which in 1999 began mailing ballots to voters and giving them the choice of returning the ballot in the post or voting in-person on election days, and Washington, which was the first state in the country to allow no-excuse mail ballots in 1974. Colorado and Hawaii have also since followed suit, holding elections entirely by mail in some cases. Postal voting is an option in 33 states and the District of Columbia.

“I’m a person that goes by statistics and data and we see this done in other states,” said DiMario. “Oregon, Utah and Washington have had mail ballots [for years]. In Oregon, you only vote by mail, that’s just how it is. And I’ll point out as well, these are not super Blue states. These are states that have a wide variety across the political spectrum and it works for all the citizens there. They do early in-person voting. The instances of fraud, they investigate and look for them specifically, they rarely occur.”

“The vast majority of states have been trending away from forcing voters to vote on one day on Election Day,” said Marion. “But Rhode Island has sort of stubbornly clung to laws that forced voters into voting that day. When voters were given a choice in 2020 because of the changes made for the pandemic, only 40 percent of people voted on Election Day.”

Early in-person voting periods, beginning approximately 20 days before election days, would also become law in Rhode Island if the act passes.

The pending legislation has received further support from RI Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who championed the bills’ goal of expanding access in Rhode Island while other states are tightening laws around elections and voting.

“Last year proved beyond a doubt that we can improve access to the ballot box while protecting the integrity of every vote,” said Gorbea. “At a time when many states are working to restrict voting options for their citizens, we must continue to be a leader in voting access by passing the Let Rhode Island Vote Act.

“Rhode Island’s record turnout in November was nearly evenly divided between voters who cast their ballots by mail, early in-person, or at a polling place on Election Day,” Gorbea continued. “This shows Rhode Islanders want options for when and how to vote. It also highlights the importance of providing access to safe and secure voting options, so Rhode Islanders can hold their government accountable.”

As more and more voters turned up in 2020, Georgia, through its Republican-controlled legislature, earlier this year passed a new voting law in the wake of the state’s first Democratic victories in presidential and senate races in a generation. Under the new law there, voters now have less time to request absentee ballots; drop box locations for mail ballots have been significantly reduced; new, strict ID requirements for absentee ballots have been established, early voting was expanded in small counties but stayed the same in more populous ones and, most notably, individuals distributing food and water to voters standing in long lines now risk a misdemeanor charge. All of these changes would hamper minorities and other marginalized communities, who largely vote Democratic, from participating in elections.

A recent study by The Washington Post, which cited data from the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, found that Republican lawmakers from 43 states across the country have proposed at least 250 new laws that would limit mail, early in-person and Election Day voting with various constraints.

Expanding access under the bills proposed in Rhode Island, by contrast, would benefit historically disenfranchised groups the most, say the bills’ sponsors and supporters. The Let RI Vote Act would also establish an online voter registration system and a free election information hotline to be managed by the secretary of state’s office, expand ballot access to blind individuals, codify the use of state-owned ballot drop box and locations, provide a voter access study commission and implement a more comprehensive system for those casting ballots from hospitals, nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

“Mail ballots are a big aspect that we think will help voters who historically maybe haven’t been able to get to a polling place because of transportation issues or whatever the case may be, they can now vote from the comfort of their home,” said Marion. “There are traditions, particularly in the Black community in other states, of Sunday voting. That hasn’t historically been available in Rhode Island and we’d like to make that available [through mail ballots] because we feel that people should choose when and how they want to cast their ballot.”

Marion said Common Cause RI threw its support behind the Let RI Vote Act because the organization advocates for government accountability. With voting being the democratic act of holding government accountable, says Marion, it made sense to expand ballot access after the pandemic showed the new methods were valid and well received. Common Cause RI is working alongside a coalition of 29 groups, called the “Voting Access Coalition,” which includes NAACP Providence and The League of Women Voters, in support of the bills.   

DiMario used a local example.

“In Narragansett, the polling places are close, there are not a lot of people allocated to each one, I’m in and out very quickly on Election Day and I am also a person who has the privilege of having a lot of autonomy over my schedule,” she said. “I can make time to go do that.”

“When you’re talking about traditionally marginalized groups, you have categories of people who punch a time clock and they might not be able to vote close to home and then commute to where they need to be and make that work out in a day,” DiMario added. “You also might have people for whom English is a second language and this would provide the opportunity to sit down with a ballot at home and look for things like information about bond questions or, at your leisure, look at each candidate and take the time to figure that out. I think that would benefit anybody, really, but it would immensely help people for who voting takes a little longer.”  

Along proposing sweeping, comprehensive to the state’s current voting system and laws, the legislation is a precisely hot topic as politicians and the country at large still wrangle with the most tumultuous election in recent American history and the pandemic. The bills were introduced to the RI legislature in February and March. The Senate bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it was voted to be held for further study on March 18. The House bill was voted to be held for further study by the state, government and elections committee on March 24.

“Really virtually every bill [in Rhode Island] is held for further study after it’s had its first hearing,” said Marion. “And then it’s just a matter of advocates convincing the legislature to give it a vote.”

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