Mail ballots suggest a big turnout in Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Wondering how many people will show up to vote in next week’s Rhode Island election? Try looking into the same crystal ball used by local political professionals: mail ballot requests.

“You can compare what has been requested in a given election year or a current election year with what the past track record is, because that will help indicate what overall turnout will be,” House Minority Leader Brian Newberry, who helps advise Republican legislative candidates on campaign strategy, told WPRI.com.

“It tells us in advance kind of the excitement level in the election,” Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island teacher’s union and a veteran of Democratic politics, told WPRI.com. “It’s an early indicator.”

According to figures obtained by WPRI.com this week from the secretary of state’s office, 15,509 mail ballots have been requested across Rhode Island to cast votes in next week’s election, a sizable increase from the last gubernatorial election in 2010, when 13,485 mail ballots were requested.

But that increase is almost entirely due to a whopping 123% jump in the number requested in just one city: Providence, where independent Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. and Democrat Jorge Elorza are locked in the capital’s first competitive general-election battle for mayor since 1994.

A total of 3,275 mail ballots have been requested this year in Providence, compared with 1,467 for the November 2010 election, according to the secretary of state’s office. When Providence is excluded, the number of mail ballots requested across the rest of the state has barely increased, from 12,018 in 2010 to 12,234 this year.

“The numbers are up because of the city of Providence,” WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming said. “It’s the first time since 1994 there’s a contested mayor’s race on the general election ballot. The candidates, I would assume, on both sides have been hustling for mail ballots, anticipating a close election.”

“But the statewide number is about the same as it was four years ago when again we had a heated governor’s race,” Fleming said. “It’s still a very good number of absentee ballots.”

The jump in mail-ballot requests in Providence means the city accounts for 21% of all mail ballot requests this year, up from 11% in 2010, which Fleming said could give a boost to Democratic candidates since Providence leans heavily toward that party. Of course, not everyone who requests a ballot will actually mail it back in to cast a vote.

If voter turnout in Providence is disproportionately higher than it was in 2010, “that generally bodes well for the Democrats across the ticket,” Walsh said. “I think if you’re Gina [Raimondo] or Dan McKee, you probably take a little comfort in at least that idea,” he added, referencing the party’s nominees for governor and lieutenant governor.

Walsh suggested that the comments made about Cianci during Tuesday night’s televised gubernatorial debate – when Raimondo referenced her support for Elorza but never mentioned Cianci, while Republican Allan Fung avoided discussing the mayor’s race almost entirely – shows both of them have an eye on winning votes among those backing Cianci for mayor.

Mail ballots have been in the news in recent days for all the wrong reasons, following allegations that off-duty police officers were aggressively soliciting them at the Crossroads homeless shelter and after a state representative was filmed with what appeared to be one; he claims he was picking it up for a constituent. Rhode Island law is relatively lax when it comes to who can collect mail ballots.

Outside of Providence, mail ballot requests this year are notably higher compared with 2010 in Central Falls (142, up from 86), South Kingstown (624, up from 464), Burillville (233, up from 174) and Newport (481, up from 365). Requests are down in West Greenwich (42, down from 70), Portsmouth (283, down from 402) and New Shoreham (104, down from 143).

In Cranston, where Fung is the setting mayor and won a back victory in the Republican primary, requests for mail ballots are up from 905 in 2010 to 1,069 this year. In Warwick, the state’s second-largest city, requests for mail ballots are down from 1,195 in 2010 to 1,061 this year.

Newberry, who represents North Smithfield and Burrillville, suggested local factors may explain much of the year-to-year difference in mail ballot requests. “It may be a district-by-district thing,” he said. “In my district, there seems to be fewer mail ballots requested than last time, but it doesn’t mean in certain other areas it won’t be higher.”

Walsh suggested that “netting out Providence, it indicates – it’s a rough guess – that the turnout will be about equal or slightly below the 2010 numbers. There’s not a lot of enthusiasm across the board except in Providence.” Four years ago, Rhode Islanders cast 342,290 votes for governor; in 2006, the total was 386,809.

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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