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Rhode Island’s June 2 presidential primary will look very different

Expect more mail ballots and fewer polling sites, less glad-handing and more hand sanitizer

Envelope and sticker for mail ballots in Rhode Island's June 2 presidential primary.
Envelope and sticker for mail ballots in Rhode Island's June 2 presidential primary.Rhode Island Secretary of State

PROVIDENCE — As the state’s June 2 presidential primary approaches, Rhode Islanders can expect many more mail ballots and far fewer polling sites.

At polling sites, hand sanitizer will replace glad-handing politicians. Face masks will replace face time with neighbors.

And the red-white-and-blue hurly-burly of presidential electioneering will culminate in a sterilized exercise, as votes are cast with six feet of separation and disposable pens.

But most Rhode Islanders won’t leave the comfort of their homes to express their presidential preference: This year, amid the coronavirus pandemic, state election officials are expecting 85 percent of the votes to be cast with mail ballots.

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So for most voters, the process of filling out your ballot is going to look more like paying the bills at your dining room table than the familiar Election Day routine.

“It sure isn’t going to look like anything we have ever seen before in Rhode Island,” said John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “We won’t have the traditional pomp and circumstance of the polling place.”

Granted, the state will open 47 polling sites around the state — roughly a quarter of the number of locations that would have opened if not for COVID-19.

But, Marion noted, “The few polling places that will be open will look more like dystopia — with poll workers garbed in personal protective equipment.”

The state Board of Elections has come with an “In-Person Voting Preliminary Covid-19 Response Plan” that requires all poll workers to wear masks and gloves. Each worker will receive at least five pairs of gloves, two disposable face masks, and one 4-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer.

Voters will be “highly encouraged” — but not required — to wear face coverings, and 100 masks will be supplied to each polling place for voters who request one. Voters will not be turned away for not wearing a face covering.

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There won’t be thermometers at polling places, and voters won’t be screened for fever. But all voting locations will be set up to allow at least six feet between everyone there at all times.

Each voter will receive a combination stylus/pen that can be used to check in on the electronic poll books and to mark their ballot in the voting booth. Poll workers will be instructed to use the same stylus/pen the entire day -- and to not share it.

Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea said she loves to go to polling sites to cast her ballot.

“You get to see your neighbor and candidates,” she said. “There is a very social aspect to elections in the Northeast.”

But the world is changing, with some voters finding it tough to get to the polls between commuting to jobs and caring for children, and now the pandemic is making public health the clear priority, she said.

This scene at a polling station in Cumberland, R.I. in 2016 may soon become a relic of the past.
This scene at a polling station in Cumberland, R.I. in 2016 may soon become a relic of the past.EPA

Mail ballots provide a way to protect the health of voters and the health of poll workers, who tend to be older and more vulnerable to the virus, Gorbea said.

So this year, Rhode Islanders might begin to create new traditions, such as filling out the ballot at home while asking their kids to do an online search on a candidate’s positions, she said.

“And by the way — spoiler alert — we are sending out ‘I Voted By Mail’ stickers with the mail ballots,” Gorbea said.

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The state will have at least one polling site open in each of the state’s 39 cities and towns. Providence will have four polling sites, Pawtucket will have three, and Cranston, Warwick, and Coventry each will have two. To find your polling site, go to vote.ri.gov.

“Be prepared for lines," Gorbea said. "With a normal election, you try to move people through fairly quickly to decrease wait time. But for this one, time is secondary to being safe.”

On March 23, Governor Gina M. Raimondo followed a Board of Elections recommendation and issued an executive order, moving the state’s presidential primary election from April 28 to June 2 while calling for a predominantly mail-ballot election.

Gorbea’s office sent mail ballot applications to the state’s 779,463 eligible voters. The deadline for applying was Tuesday, and the state had received 144,584 applications as of Wednesday, according to Nick Domings, spokesman for the secretary of state.

By comparison, the turnout in Rhode Island for the 2016 presidential primary was 187,291 voters, including 8,070 mail ballots. And the 2012 presidential primary, with incumbent president Barack Obama on the ballot, produced a turnout of just 23,200 voters, including 2,641 mail ballots.

This year’s presidential primaries promise little drama, with Republican President Donald Trump set to square off against former VP Joe Biden in November.

But the ballots were printed before some candidates pulled out, so the Democratic primary ballot will include Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard, and Andrew Yang in addition to Biden. And the Republican primary ballot will include Bill Weld and Rocque “Rocky” De La Fuente alongside Trump.

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Also, voters will be asked to choose delegates to send to the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

Rhode Island Board of Elections Vice Chairman Stephen P. Erickson said mail ballots will be arriving in people’s mailboxes this week, and he urged voters to return the ballots as soon as possible.

Voters should fill out the ballot, put it in the “oath envelope,” and sign that envelope, he said. To guard against fraud, the Board of Elections will compare that signature against the signatures on mail ballot applications. As a further check, voters are being asked to put their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on the oath envelope as well.

Voters should then place the oath envelope in the larger prepaid-postage envelope, and mail it back so it arrives at the Board of Elections by 8 p.m. June 2, Erickson said.

In her executive order, Raimondo waived the requirement for voters to get the signatures of two witnesses or a notary on the mail ballots.

Erickson said state health officials wanted to minimize the number of people involved in each mail ballot, and he said checking signatures is the best method of guarding against fraud.

But the Rhode Island Republican Party has objected, saying that neither Raimondo nor the Board of Elections has the legal authority to suspend laws “essential to the integrity of an election.”

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“Experience has shown that our elections are susceptible to fraud and abuse,” the GOP said, citing numerous examples in a statement it submitted to the Board of Elections. “We recognize the need of conducting an election in a manner that safeguards the public health from the coronavirus, but this does not require entirely suspending various safeguards which protect elections from fraud and abuse.”

Instead, the Republican Party called for a prohibition on “mail ballot harvesting” — the practice of campaign workers collecting and submitting mail ballots. “Although this practice is illegal in other states, it occurs in Rhode Island,” the party said.

State Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Cienki said, “We have no issue with mail ballots. A lot of our voters are older and many do participate in mail ballots.” But officials should have used the opportunity to update the voter rolls, and if they wanted to change security provisions and move the primary, they should have gone to the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, which she said has been “missing in action.”

On Wednesday, President Trump stepped up his assault on voting by mail, incorrectly accusing Michigan’s Democratic secretary of state of mailing ballots to all of the state’s registered voters and falsely claiming that it was illegal. The president also threatened to withhold federal funds to Michigan and Nevada if the states proceed in expanding vote-by-mail efforts.

Gorbea, a Democrat, said, “It is reprehensible that the president is using his Twitter feed to doubt the integrity of elections in the United States.” And she noted Trump has voted by mail, saying, “How do you reconcile that?”

Marion said academic research shows that voting by mail does not favor one political party or the other. Research also suggests that once people experience the convenience of mail ballots, they may want to vote by mail in future elections, he said.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com