By JOHN MARION Depending on your perspective, the presidential preference primary held in Rhode Island on June 2nd was either a smashing success or an utter failure. The truth, however, lies somewhere in between these two extremes, and can teach us an
Depending on your perspective, the presidential preference primary held in Rhode Island on June 2nd was either a smashing success or an utter failure.
The truth, however, lies somewhere in between these two extremes, and can teach us an important lesson about what we need to do to prepare for the elections this fall.
Let's start by acknowledging Rhode Island's remarkable accomplishment in holding an election where more than 120,000 people were able to safely cast their ballots despite an ongoing pandemic. While turnout didn't eclipse the 2016 total of more than 180,000 ballots cast, when both the Democratic and
Republican primaries were being contested, it far exceeded the 2012 total of approximately 22,000 ballots cast, when the Democratic primary was uncontested, and the Republican race was winding down.
Even more remarkable, however, was Rhode Island's shift, in a short period of time, from an election system where typically less than five percent of voters use mail ballots to one where more than eighty percent voted by mail. In states that vote primarily by mail, such as Washington and Colorado, that transition took decades, not months. Thanks in large part to the expansion of voting by mail, there were no reports on June 2nd of lines at polling places, and every polling place Common Cause staff visited on election day was able to successfully put in place social distancing measures and other safeguards to protect the health of both poll workers and voters.
However, these successes should not gloss over real problems we saw with the June 2 primary. As of this writing we do not have final numbers, but it appears that a not-insignificant number of voters did not receive their mail ballots, or received them so late that it would not have been possible to reliably return them through the mail in time to be counted. Those who will declare the June 2nd election a failure will point to these problems, as well as the reports of mail ballot applications that were sent to old
And, yes, we need to do more to clean our voter rolls. That voter roll maintenance must be done in a way that does not accidentally purge eligible voters from the rolls. Our country has a long and ugly history of voter purges designed to disenfranchise people of color.
Based on the initial lessons from June 2nd, we now need to move swiftly to put in place changes for the September statewide primary and November general. That is why Common Cause and 15 other groups are announcing our support for the Safe and Healthy Voting in 2020 Act that will allow Rhode
Island to hold successful elections this September and November. If we do not make these policy changes now there will not be enough time to fix what did not work for June 2nd.
The changes we support include mailing a ballot application to voters in July that will allow them to apply for ballots in both September and November. That will eliminate a bottleneck in processing those applications that seems to have slowed mailing of ballots to voters for June 2nd. We also support putting secure drop boxes around the state to allow voters to make sure their ballots are counted, without relying on potential delays in the postal system. Also, creating a 20-day period of early voting so that voters who want to cast a ballot in-person don't have to worry about the crush of voters on election day. It's predicted that the November election will shatter turnout records and we need to provide multiple modes of voting; mail, early, and election day, to make it safe.
Successful elections will only be possible this fall if we fix the mistakes that occurred with the June 2nd primary and move swiftly to put in place policies that will make sure voters can safely exercise their right to cast a ballot.