Secretary of state pushes for early in-person voting

Julianne Peixoto | WPRI-TV

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea says it’s time for Rhode Island to allow early in-person voting.

The Democrat is proposing to allow people to vote during normal business hours for a 20-day period before primary and general elections, and on the weekend prior to each election. It’s one of a handful of election-related bills submitted at Gorbea’s request. She is also proposing moving the state primary to August instead of September.

Most states allow qualified voters to cast a ballot in person during a designated period prior to Election Day. In Rhode Island, some people vote early and in-person now by going to their town halls and applying for an emergency mail ballot, which is a paperwork intensive process, Gorbea said.

Gorbea said her proposed changes would help busy voters and eliminate the need for many of the emergency mail ballots.

“I’ve made it a priority to increase access to the ballot box while ensuring the integrity of every vote,” she said in an interview. “That’s my overall vision.”

Bills to allow early in-person voting have stalled in previous legislative sessions. Town officials, including clerks, worried about the logistics, especially if a polling place had to be open on the weekend.

Gorbea included one weekend of voting in this year’s bill, instead of multiple. She said electronic poll books being sent to every polling location this year to replace paper books will make the process easier.

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The state Board of Elections supports the bill. It reviewed tens of thousands of mail ballots during the 2016 election, according to board member Stephen Erickson.

“It’s much better if people can vote in a machine and have their vote recorded at the same time in a local community,” he said. “It’s convenient. It’s efficient and more accurate.”

Common Cause, a good government group, has been a proponent of early voting for years and also supports the legislation.

Gorbea says moving the state primary to the third Tuesday in August would give the state more time to get general election ballots ready to be mailed to overseas and military voters. Currently, if primary results are contested, the state runs the risk of not getting the general election ballots ready to be mailed in time to meet the federal deadline. And, schools could be used as polling locations since classes wouldn’t be in session, Gorbea added.

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause, said the group has not yet taken a position on the primary change and is still evaluating the pros and cons. One concern is that many people vacation in August, he said.

Gorbea is also pushing legislation to codify a practice her office already performs to help clean up voter rolls. The secretary of state’s office notifies other states when a person has registered to vote in Rhode Island if they provided their previous out-of-state address, but it’s not required to.

And to ensure people return their mail ballots, the secretary of state’s office has asked for an additional $33,000 in the budget to provide pre-paid postage for the return of all mail ballots.