By LAURA WEICK A coalition of Rhode Islanders and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea support legislation to make voting by mail easier and more secure during the ongoing pandemic. During a press conference held over Zoom on June 12, Gorbea and panelists
A coalition of Rhode Islanders and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea support legislation to make voting by mail easier and more secure during the ongoing pandemic.
During a press conference held over Zoom on June 12, Gorbea and panelists from other organizations discussed the Safe and Healthy Voting in 2020 Act. The measure aims to encourage mail ballot voting during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as making the mail ballot process more efficient.
Gorbea is seeking to have the measure introduced and enacted in time for this Sept. 8 statewide primary and the Nov. 3 general election.
The act would allow Gorbea to send mail ballot applications to all qualified voters this summer; eliminate the witness or notary signature requirement for mail ballots; extend the deadline for completed ballots to be counted if they are postmarked by Election Day; and create a 20 day early voting period.
It would also allow the Rhode Island Board of Elections to use high-tech equipment to verify signatures to prevent fraud and speed up the voting process. These initiatives would only be in place for the state party primaries in September and the general election in November. In-person voting would still be offered.
According to John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, more than 80 percent of ballots from Rhode Island’s June 2 presidential primary were submitted by mail, compared to less than 5 percent in previous years. According to the Board of Elections, over 120,000 ballots, both in-person and by mail, were cast in the primary.
However, mail voting in June had mixed results. At least 1,670 ballots arrived too late to be counted, and of the 155,792 requested mail ballots, only 103,200 were cast. Boards of canvassers across the state took more than a week to tally every vote.
Marion suggests legislation including the extension of receiving deadlines and more dropboxes would help address these issues.
“That’s why we're here today, because we need changes to the state laws to allow us to hold successful elections, again, in September, in November,” Marion said. “And so the Safe and Healthy Voting in 2020 Act makes those necessary changes for us to have successful elections.”
Gorbea stated several reasons why mail ballots would be required for safe voting during a pandemic. She explained that many polling locations have historically been located in senior centers or nursing homes, which would be unsafe to use now since senior citizens are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Many poll workers are also older, and Gorbea does not want to risk exposing them to the virus. Finally, polls often have long lines where people stand close together for long periods of time, and it would be difficult to maintain social distancing at busy polling places.
“We don’t know what the future holds for this pandemic,” Gorbea said. “We do know that we need to be ready for limitations in the fall on large social gatherings, and be able to put them in place for an election cycle that clearly has everyone’s attention, and is likely to have very high participation.”
In addition to Marion and Gorbea, American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island Executive Director Steve Brown, NAACP Providence Branch President Jim Vincent and Sarah Fessler of the Rhode Island Medical Association spoke in support of the legislation.
In addition to the aforementioned organizations, the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Commission on Human Rights, the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University, the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, the Working Families Party, Women’s Fund of Rhode Island, Clean Water Action Rhode Island, Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee, the Womxn Project, ARISE Education, the National Federation of the Blind of Rhode Island, Planned Parenthood of Southern New England and the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless also voiced their support.
Nick Domings, public information officer for Gorbea’s office, said more than 800 people viewed the event on Facebook.
“We all know that Rhode Island is going through a public health crisis as the rest of the country is, but there’s just as serious a crisis and that is over a key aspect of the foundation of our democratic system of government, the right to vote,” Brown said.
The panel then opened the floor to questions. When asked about how the legislation would respond to voters who reported not receiving their ballots in time for the June election, and fear it happening again, Gorbea said that in-person voting would still be an option.
“We’re not forcing anybody to go through one particular process,” Gorbea said. “We’re basically opening the availability of the ballot box in different manners, so that the crowds can be divided and not all descend in one particular day and time.”
Gorbea also answered questions about mail ballots that were marked as “undeliverable” and if mail ballot applications should be sent out earlier. She said that initiatives in the Safe and Healthy Voting Act such as counting ballots received three days after the election if they have been postmarked on Election Day, as well as sending mail ballot applications earlier, can help with these issues.
“A lot of what we were doing for the presidential preference primary we put together in about two months,” Gorbea said. “And so, there were definitely kinks to the system that we’re trying to correct now, and I’ve proposed a full review process along with the Board of Elections and the local boards of canvassers, and many other groups in this press conference, to go over the lessons learned from the presidential preference primary make sure that we improve on it.”