Sending mail ballot applications was passed in the House but Senate leadership failed to act

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Three states in the U.S. conduct their elections by mail ballot – Oregon, Colorado and Utah. Rhode Island took a first step in that direction for the state’s Presidential Primary in June when, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state mailed ballot applications to every registered voter to keep people home instead of going to the polls to cast a ballot. If a voter returned the application, they would get a ballot to fill out and mail back. 

That won’t be happening for the September primary. 

A bill allowing the Secretary of State to send mail ballot applications in September passed by a wide margin in the House on Thursday but was not even referred to committee in the Senate. 

Both houses did, however, pass a bill allowing for early emergency ballot voting, with all three local legislators – Sen. Bridget Valverde (Dist. 35), Sen. Lou Raptakis (Dist. 33), and Rep. Justine Caldwell (Dist. 30) – all voting in support. 

The emergency voting bill will allow municipalities to use an electronic voting “poll pad” for registered voters wishing to cast an emergency ballot. It will be available for three weeks before the election. EG Town Clerk Leigh Carney wrote the General Assembly in favor of that legislation:

I am writing regarding a bill introduced in the 2020 legislative session related to streamlining emergency voting (H8102-SUB A). As the Town Clerk, I strongly support this bill. Its passage is vital to our office staff being able to handle the largely anticipated requests for emergency mail ballots in a manner that is safe and efficient for the voters. Having the poll pad, DS-200 and ballots on hand will reduce handling extra paperwork and create a more secure process for all voters to cast their ballots during the emergency period. On behalf of the local election officials throughout the State, I respectfully ask that the General Assembly approve this legislation.

But local legislators Caldwell and Valverde expressed their disappointment over the failure of mail ballot expansion. Caldwell voted in favor of the House mail ballot bill. 

“I was in favor of all of the bills that expanded voting access,” said Caldwell. “I strongly support mail ballots so I’m very disappointed.”

Caldwell said she enjoys casting a ballot at the poll but voted by mail in June and it felt good.

“As elected officials we should be encouraging everyone to vote and making it easier for people,” she said. “I was proud of the House.”

“It’s important to protect the safety of voters and poll workers,” said Valverde, adding, “We should be making it easy to vote.”

Senate President Dominick Ruggiero cited the cost of mail balloting and problems with the June Presidential Primary as arguments against sending mail ballots to every registered voter.

Common Cause Executive Director John Marion conceded the June primary was a “mixed bag,” noting overload for local boards of canvassers and problems for some voters not getting their ballot in time or not getting it in on time. But he said the new legislation fixed some of that and the 2020 primary compared to 2012 – a similar year in terms of decided presidential contests – had four times the number of ballots cast. 

“That’s only explainable because the Secretary of State sent out mail ballot applications,” said Marion. 

Mail ballots will still be available to voters (you can do that HERE), but the difference is, this time voters will need to request one and, in order for it to be counted, the vote must be witnessed by two people or be notarized. 

“It’s going to be harder to cast a mail ballot,” Marion said. He said the resistance to mail balloting didn’t seem to cut across party lines, noting that the three states that do 100 percent vote by mail are varied, politically. Colorado is “purple,” Utah is “red,” and Oregon is “blue.”

But he was happy about the expanded emergency balloting, noting that the legislation that passed was essentially the early voting legislation Common Cause had been working to get passed for years, minus voting expanded to the weekend.

Sec. of State Nellie Gorbea had supported sending mail ballot applications to every voter. In lieu of that for the September primary, she said her office will: 

  • Send postcards to registered voters who have a Sept. 8 primary election. Postcards will include three options voters have for casting ballots as well as the phone number for voters’ local boards of canvassers. 
  • Provide applications and postage for local boards to mail applications to any voter upon request. 
  • Find additional businesses, community organizations and public offices to have printed mail ballot applications available to voters.

Here’s a link to important 2020 election dates and deadlines: http://eastgreenwichri.com/DocumentCenter/View/3248/IMPORTANT-2020-ELECTION-DATES. It’s not too late to register for this year’s election!


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