The Rhode Island Board of Elections has ruled that a district committee’s endorsement of City Council President Steve Merolla for State Senate was valid, striking down a complaint from another …
The Rhode Island Board of Elections has ruled that a district committee’s endorsement of City Council President Steve Merolla for State Senate was valid, striking down a complaint from another candidate regarding its validity.
Brian Dunckley, who is running for the District 31 State Senate seat, filed a complaint to the Board of Elections and the Warwick Board of Canvassers, arguing that the District Committee’s Democratic Party’s endorsement of Merolla in the Democratic Primary was invalid. Dunckley, who is also running as a Democrat, cited a Rhode Island law that requires committees to organize in January of every odd-numbered year, and file a listing of its officers to the Secretary of State within 10 days. According to Dunckley, the district committee met on Jan 31, but did not file the listing until Feb. 12, which was over 10 days later.
Dunckley argued that since the committee did not meet this requirement, it was not a valid committee, and therefore, their endorsement of Merolla was invalid.
“While the petition for the removal of the District Committee’s endorsement stems from the Committee’s failure to comply with established election rules, there is a broader principle here, which is central to good government and to my campaign,” Dunckley said in a press release. “Transparency is essential to good governance. Left unchecked, a lack of transparency erodes public trust and allows for an environment in which, for example, a Committee can shepherd a twenty-year system politician through the endorsement process by relying on the electorate’s unawareness of the rules for that process.”
The Board of Elections met on Thursday, July 2 to discuss the matter during a Zoom session. The board’s legal counsel Ray Maraccio said the case could bypass typical protocol, which involves the local Board of Canvassers ruling on the matter first, because of potential prejudice that could result to the filing candidate.
Dunckley’s attorney and wife Kelly McElroy argued that candidates filing for ballot consideration have to file by deadlines, and argued that district committees must do the same in order to be valid.
“Nobody can exercise discretion to extend a deadline that is set forth in a statute that was passed by the legislature, and the consequence of missing those deadlines is that the voter [who wishes to become a candidate] is not recognized as a lawful candidate,” McElroy said. “He can’t exercise his legal right to be on the ballot. And there should be no different treatment for a group of registered voters who want to exercise a legal right to form a district committee. Why would their failure to meet mandatory organizational requirements be forgiven, but an individual voter’s wouldn’t be?”
Katherine Merolla, representing her brother Steve Merolla, said that Dunckley never argued the committee wasn’t valid until Steve Merolla received the endorsement. She said Dunckley only complained because he did not receive an endorsement. Katherine Merolla cited several Rhode Island Supreme Court cases to differentiate between “directory” and “mandatory” statutes. This means that directory statutes simply outline processes, while mandatory statutes create requirements.
“The fact that it filed its papers a day late is a directory factor, which does not result in invalidation of the entire committee,” Katherine Merolla said. “So if a Board of Canvassers fails to report lecture results within time, it doesn’t void the whole election. When things of that nature occur they are viewed as a directory, not mandatory.”
After listening to the arguments, Marcaccio recommended that the board deny Dunckley’s request. He said that Dunckley had the standing to raise the question considering Dunckley was not endorsed by the committee, but that sided with the Merollas’ suggestion that the timeline was a directory provision.
“If the organization is not met, there is a consequence, therefore that aspect of the statute is mandatory.” Marcaccio said. “There is no similar consequence if you’re a day late filing that organization with the Secretary of State. That makes all the difference. So the fact that the committee was late is an effect that has no consequence under the statutes.”
All members of the board voted in line with Marcaccio’s recommendation. They agreed that the committee’s filing was not motivated by malice.
“I want to state on the record that I think that there are circumstances when a delay could be prejudicial, but I do not believe the facts of this case support any prejudice,” Stephen Erickson, vice chairman of the Board of Elections, said.
After the ruling, Dunckley said that while he understood the board’s ruling, he personally disagreed with it. Regardless, he plans to continue his campaign without the committee’s endorsement.
“I’m disappointed with the board’s rationale,” Dunckley said. “I respect their decision, they settled this very quickly, and I thank them for that. I’m looking forward to a positive campaign.”
Steve Merolla was happy with the Board of Elections’ ruling, but criticized McElroy for taking the case to trial in the first place. In a statement, Merolla said that McElroy, daughter of Ward 4 Councilman James McElroy, was appointed as a Warwick municipal court judge despite public concern regarding nepotism. Merolla opposed Kelly McElroy’s appointment.
“She thinks it’s appropriate to use the State Board of Elections to enact some sort of vengeance against me for daring to stand in the way of her getting a plum political appointment,” Merolla wrote. “She thinks that’s an appropriate use of public resources. For someone who took the job under an ethical cloud, this really highlights the fact that Kelly McElroy is more interested in playing political games than serving the public.”