Here’s why Speaker Mattiello believes he beat Steve Frias on mail ballots

Republican Steven Frias, left, and Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello debate on WPRI 12's Newsmakers on Nov. 4, 2016.
Republican Steven Frias, left, and Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello debate on WPRI 12's Newsmakers on Nov. 4, 2016.

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello was down 147 votes to Republican challenger Steve Frias Tuesday night, but the powerful Democrat declared victory anyway because he claims he secured the majority of the 714 mail ballots that were returned by voters in District 15.

“We know what we have in mail ballots,” Mattiello said Tuesday. “We’ll get an overwhelming percentage of that. Conservatively, very conservatively, I know that we’re going to be up a minimum net of 300. So we won the race. There’s no question.”

So how does he know that?

He doesn’t. But he’s relying on his campaign organization, which made mail ballots a priority in the weeks leading up to Election Day.

Rhode Island is one of 27 states and Washington, D.C., that does not require voters to have an excuse for casting their ballot by mail, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Three other states – Colorado, Oregon and Washington – go further and require all-mail voting.

Although the use of mail ballots in Rhode Island has surged since the “no excuse” law was approved in 2011, politicians have long included a mail ballot strategy as part of their plan for winning elections. Mail ballots often played a key role in former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci’s victories. In the September primary, Providence Democrat Ana Quezada used mail ballots to unseat longtime incumbent Sen. Juan Pichardo.

Here’s how it works.

Anyone can ask their local board of canvassers for a list of voters who have requested mail ballots in previous elections. This is considered a public record. Once a campaign obtains that list, it can send workers or volunteers to every voter’s home and ask them if they want to vote by mail again. (Some voters can also request to permanently vote by mail.)

When campaign workers make those visits, they can be armed with blank mail ballot applications for voters to fill out. That’s not just for folks who have voted by mail in the past, either. If Mattiello or Frias were out door-knocking in their district and a voter expressed interest in voting by mail, it is completely legal to provide the voter with an application for a mail ballot.

Once applications are certified and mail ballots are sent out to voters, the real work for a campaign begins.

Workers are allowed to return to the home of the voter and ask them if they have filled out their ballot. In some cases, voters can sign an affidavit asking for someone else – like a campaign worker – to pick up their mail ballot, but this typically only happens during the emergency ballot period in the three weeks leading up to the election.

While it is illegal for a campaign worker to fill out a mail ballot for a voter, the voter is allowed to seal their ballot and hand it to the worker to be submitted. (They could also drop it in the mail.)

Voters filling out mail ballots are required to have two witnesses sign a form declaring that they filled out the ballot. There is no prohibition on campaign workers or even the candidates themselves being a witness.

“Absentee ballots are part of an effective [get out the vote] strategy and we had one, as did many other candidates state and nationwide,” Patti Doyle, a spokesperson for Mattiello’s campaign, said. “There is nothing earth-shattering about this process.”

For his part, Frias has long been critical of the mail ballot process in Rhode Island. In 2014, he penned an op-ed in the Providence Journal suggesting there may have been mail ballot abuse in that year’s mayoral race in Providence.

“Mail ballots are susceptible to tampering. Rhode Island’s rather lax mail ballot laws must be tightened,” Frias wrote. “At a minimum, voter identification should be submitted with any mail ballot application. Furthermore, eligibility for mail ballots should be limited to those who will actually be out of state on Election Day or who can document they are too infirm to go a polling place.”

Frias isn’t alone with his concerns. John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said his organization supports giving voters the ability to use mail ballots, but “our preferred method is to have a true system of early voting in Rhode Island.” He said he has also advocated for “tightening the chain of custody” with mail ballots in order to prevent campaigns from having too much influence.

On Wednesday, Frias said he wants to “make sure that all votes cast are legal and done without improper interference from the Mattiello campaign.” He pointed to a Providence Journal report published Wednesday that included the account of a Cranston resident who claims Mattiello’s campaign intimidated him while he filled out an emergency ballot.

Frias said he wants to see “an investigation into the absentee ballots cast in my race.”

The mail ballots in the District 15 race are expected to be counted Thursday.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan