PROVIDENCE — The last time Rhode Island held a presidential primary, just one-third of polling places opened, resulting in confusion that led some voters to simply give up.
So now, with this year’s presidential primaries coming up on April 28, state election officials and government watchdogs don’t want Rhode Island to make the same mistake.
The number of polling sites could prove crucial if the Democratic primary field remains unsettled, even after Super Tuesday next week, thereby catapulting Rhode Island to an uncommon level of relevance in the presidential race.
"It’s not an easy task to predict whether the primary will be hotly contested,” said John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. "However, we have seen the Board of Elections guess incorrectly in the past.”
In 2016, just 144 of Rhode Island’s 419 polling places opened for that year’s Democratic and Republican presidential primaries.
Marion said having so few polling sites open might have saved cities and towns money, but "it resulted in voters being disenfranchised.”
Many voters headed to the place where they were accustomed to voting, only to find a sign telling them they were in the wrong place, he said. Common Cause volunteers reported that all too often, those voters gave up in frustration.
So, Marion said, this year’s mandate for state election officials is clear: "Err on the side of caution and open a sufficient number of polling places.”
Robert Rapoza, executive director of the Rhode Island Board of Elections, said his staff is now collecting information on how many polling places cities and towns plan to open on April 28.
Rapoza said the staff is planning for a voter turnout of 30 percent — which would be higher than usual — and on March 11 he will make recommendations to the board, which has final say over how many polling sites will open.
"We are preparing because we want to be sure voting is accessible and secure for the voters,” Rapoza said.
Stephen Erickson, vice chairman of the Board of Elections, said the body usually defers to local election officials when it comes to deciding how many polling sites to open for primaries.
"But given what happened four years ago, we will take a close look at this,” he said, quipping, "No matter what we decide, it will be the wrong decision.”
Erickson said it’s tough to tell whether a Rhode Island presidential primary will produce a big turnout or not. "It’s a very difficult calculus — to try to hit the sweet spot,” he said. The challenge is making sure that there are enough poll workers at the locations that do open, he said.
Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea formed an elections task force in 2017 and, among other recommendations, suggested that state and local officials open more voting places.
The task force report showed that turnout for Rhode Island’s presidential primaries can vary widely — from as low as 6 percent in 2004 to as high as 32.5 percent in 2008. The turnout was 25 percent in 2016.
The report explained that the state underwent redistricting in 2011 and 2012, resulting in the redrawing of voting district lines in response to the census, and at about the same time, the General Assembly increased the number of constituents served by each polling place from 1,900 to 3,000 voters.
That reduced the typical number of polling places from 490 to 420, and in keeping with past practice, just about one-third of that lower number of polling sites opened for the 2016 primaries.
"Couple this with the second highest voter turnout in Rhode Island (presidential primary) history — 25 percent in 2016 — and the result was confusion and delays for voters,” the report said.
Now, officials are hoping to avoid that same confusion and delays on April 28.
After March 11, voters will be able to go to the secretary of state’s website — vote.ri.gov — to plug in their address and find their polling place for April 28. The deadline to register to vote in the presidential primary is March 29.