The Rhode Island Town and City Clerks’ Association’s Elections Committee is behind six bills to optimize local elections by altering the selection and size of polling locations, allowing for easier disaffiliation by unaffiliated voters, extending mail in voter deadlines and establishing new practices for write-in voting.
Cranston Registrar and Director of Elections Nick Lima provided brief summaries of each bill and the reasons why the committee has chosen to support these pieces of legislation. According to Lima, the House is expected to pass all six bills, with two of the bills having been passed already and the remaining four being voted on in committee this Thursday, May 18.
“They still have to go through the Senate, though I know the senate also passed two of the bills on the floor,” Lima said. “Although, they passed a slightly different version than came out of the committee and the House, so they’re going to have to settle that.”
Lima said that the two bills passed so far are those involving an extension to the time before an election in which drop boxes for mail-in ballots can be opened and another to accommodate mail-in voter applications that have been filed within three days of the 20 day application window.
“Most of these aren’t very technical bills,” Lima said. “They don’t make sweeping changes to election law. They’re minor details in the process that can be pretty obscure.”
Due to the importance of these initiatives to local election proceedings Lima provided a short summary of each piece of legislation so as to make them more digestible to those who will be affected.
“These are listed in order of priority, 1 through 6, in my personal judgement, but we are of course advocating for all six bills,” Lima explained. “I summarized them as succinctly as I could. While they’re not ‘game changers’ like Let RI Vote, Online Voter Registration, Automatic Voter Registration, early voting, or other ‘big’ election bills that have passed in recent years, they all help local boards of canvassers by saving critical resources and staff time better used elsewhere in support of our voters. I would define all six as technical bills that make minor changes to election laws for the benefit of more efficient elections administration and more access and convenience for the voters.”
Lima provided the following summary of the bills:
- S-0613 – Highest priority bill as this allows the longstanding practice of combining polls for low-turnout special elections, special primaries, and the presidential preference primary to continue. Cranston typically opens 6 to 12 polls (1 or 2 per ward) for the Presidential Preference Primary, tentatively scheduled for April 2, 2024. We don’t have the resources or poll workers to open all 26 polls – and never have in the past – for a party primary that typically only sees 15% to 20% turnout. For the CD-1 towns elsewhere in the state, this is also important because that federal special election is anticipated to have even less turnout – and state law does not close schools for specials, which makes half of the state’s polling places unavailable to begin with.
Raising the cap
- S-0034 – This bill passed the full House in 2022. It raises the cap on the number of registered voters that can be assigned to a polling place from 3,000 to 3,500. This allows us more flexibility when selecting polls, particularly those like large school gyms that can accommodate more voters. More importantly, as more people register headed into the 2024 elections, some of our existing large polls are nearing the cap – meaning if they exceed the cap, we will be forced to split those polls in two, sending some voters to a less ideal, less centrally located polling place just to adhere to the letter of the law. The next redistricting isn’t until 2032, so this bill is intended to give us breathing room for those large polls. Of course, even in a 50% turnout election, that’s only 1,500 voters at those largest polls – not 3,000 – and with early voting and mail ballots, it’s really more like 800-900 actual in-person voters on Election Day. So the real effect of increasing the cap from 3,000 to 3,500 is only a few dozen extra election day voters – 100-200 at most – which these large polls can easily handle, as it’s still far less than they handled in the days before early voting.
- S-0115 – Every primary, thousands of unaffiliated/independent voters choose to vote in a party primary election of their choice, then file a paper disaffiliation form. However, with more voters voting by mail, many now forget to do this step, meaning they become locked into a party that limits their voting options in the next primary. Additionally, many voters simply forget to disaffiliate (we are not allowed to remind them), even though they intend to go back to being unaffiliated after they vote. This leads to voter confusion, and in many cases, voters casting a provisional ballot that is disqualified because they’re not eligible in the party they prefer to vote in. Local boards of canvassers also spend hundreds of hours processing these paper forms manually after every primary – in Cranston, we just finished processing the September 2022 disaffiliations in January. This bill is great for both voters and local elections administration.
Mail-in ballot deadlines
- S-0843 - Extends the deadline to accept mail ballot applications by three days if sent via USPS mail. Many voters apply close to the 20-day deadline, so this simply allows us to still accept those applications if received by mail within three days of the deadline. This makes sense, as normally, we reject those applications, and mail an “emergency” mail ballot application back to the voter, asking for identical information that we already have from the rejection, which the voter then has to rush to get back to us in order to get their ballot in time for the election. This cuts several days off that process, so the voter can get the mail ballot they requested without going through this unnecessary red tape. State law already allows a 5-day transmission period for voter registrations sent by mail received within 5 days of the 30-day deadline. In this case, it’s 3 days because the deadline is always a Tuesday, which would make the receipt period end on Friday for mail ballot applications, which happens to also be our deadline to process them.
Drop box extensions
- S-0845 - Allows opening of dropboxes at least 35 days in advance of the election. This allows for mail ballots to be deposited into these secure drop boxes, located in all 39 cities and towns (usually at city/town hall) as soon as they are sent out by the Secretary of State to voters, which is often 25-28 days before the election. Current law only allows the boxes to be opened 20 days prior. This extension will also allow voter registrations (30 day deadline) and mail ballot applications (20 day deadline) to be deposited in the box securely (all boxes, by law, have a 24/7 video surveillance system and other security measures). This makes it more convenient for voters, and likewise results in fewer rejections or delays in processing these forms. A House Sub-A version of this bill changes the 35 days to 30, which still works for us and we support, as it is a significant improvement over 20.
Write in changes
- S-0841 – Currently, local boards have to manually tabulate – by hand and hashmarks – thousands of write-in votes for fictional characters, ineligible persons, and a number of vulgarities. This is an enormous waste of many hours of our limited staff time, at the same time we are trying to finish the election process by paying poll workers, retrieving equipment, conducting recounts, adjudicating provisional ballots, and preparing for the risk-limiting audit and certification. The law change would establish a write-in declaration process for actual, real write-in candidates so we can ensure they are eligible and complying with mandatory campaign finance laws. We would then only need to tabulate races with a declared write-in candidate, or those with no other candidate except write-ins, or those rare races where there are more write-in votes received than for a candidate.