RI will only open 1 in 3 polling places for primary

Common Cause chief argues not 'enough has been done to make sure voters know'

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Think you know where your polling place is for next week’s Rhode Island presidential primary? You’d better double check.

The R.I. Board of Elections plans to open only 144 of Rhode Island’s 419 polling places for the April 26 primary, cutting the number by two-thirds compared with a typical November election, which will reduce the cost of administering the vote.

Robert Rapoza, the board’s director of elections, noted that a similar-sized reduction was made for the March 2008 presidential primary, which saw record primary turnout of 216,000 Rhode Island voters. (By comparison, the November 2014 general election attracted 329,000 voters and the November 2012 general attracted 450,000.)

However, that was before Rhode Island cut the total number of polling places for November elections from 541 to 419 – so in the 2008 presidential primary there were 177 open even after the two-thirds reduction, 33 more than this year.

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said that while he is “cautiously optimistic” the Board of Elections is doing what’s necessary to ensure a smooth primary day, the little-known changes could be a recipe for voter confusion.

(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

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“I don’t think enough has been done to make sure voters know that they likely won’t be casting their ballot at the same location as they did in November of 2014,” Marion told WPRI.com. He recommended that voters confirm their polling places online and review a sample ballot in advance, since they’ll need to vote for local delegates in addition to presidential candidates.

“Make sure the first time you’re looking at the ballot isn’t when you have a pen in your hand at the polling place,” he said. “That’s incredibly important.”

Eyewitness News political analyst Joe Fleming expressed similar concerns. “I think the general public has no idea there’s going to be a lot fewer polling places come Tuesday,” he said. “It could possibly cause a lot of confusion.”

Fleming cited the example of Cumberland, which has 13 polling places in a general election but will only have three next week. He said the impact will depend on voter turnout, which was 33% in the high-profile 2008 presidential primary.

“If the turnout is 10% statewide, it’s not going to be too bad,” he said. “If the turnout gets up to 25%, it’s going to be interesting – you could start to get some lines in some of the areas.”

Rapoza said the board has taken other steps to ensure the primary goes well. The agency has instructed cities and towns to hire more poll workers to staff the precincts so lines can move faster, and it plans to send out 1,564 voting booths, compared with 1,265 sent out for the 2008 presidential primary.

In addition, ongoing turmoil at the Board of Elections means the agency will be without a permanent leader during the primary: its executive director, Robert Kando, is currently serving his second unpaid suspension of the year due to job performance issues. He is not scheduled to return to work until May 2.

Marion said that despite his cautious optimism about next week’s vote, “it’s still disconcerting to know that the executive director – who is charged with making sure the election day runs smoothly – is on an unpaid suspension on primary day.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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