PROVIDENCE — Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea on Friday announced that her office will send mail ballot applications to all registered voters in Rhode Island before the Nov. 3 election, and the Rhode Island National Guard will help process those applications.
Gorbea’s office sent mail ballot applications in advance of June’s presidential primary, but did not do so before Tuesday’s primary elections because she wanted the state Senate to pass a bill – already approved by the House – that would have waived the requirement that residents who voted by mail needed two witnesses and a notary.
The Senate never did, and ultimately the US Supreme Court ruled that the witnesses requirement could be waived because of the coronavirus, but it was too late to send out applications.
So now Gorbea is not waiting for legislation; she’ll use $480,000 of the $3 million that the federal CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) gave to the state for COVID-19-related election costs to mail out 690,000 applications for voting in the general election.
“This is going to make it easy for people to vote from home this November,” Gorbea said. “And it is going to ensure that voters don’t have to choose between their health and their constitutional right to vote.”
Gorbea’s office had been criticized for waiting too long to send out mail ballot applications before June’s elections. On Friday, she said the applications for the November election will begin arriving in voters' mail boxes this weekend, and throughout next week, providing plenty of time for people to apply and to return mail ballots.
Record turnout is expected in the Nov. 3 election, Gorbea said. “And a viable vote-by-mail system is going to enable us to avoid packing polling locations and basically creating an environment where COVID-19 can spread rapidly,” she said.
The applications will go to all “active” registered voters, with “active” meaning that a voter is registered and has not had a piece of official elections mail returned as undeliverable. It does not reflect the frequency of voting.
House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, issued a statement, saying, “Although the Secretary of State’s initiative is laudable, she doesn’t have the legal authority to unilaterally change election law. The issue is ripe for a legal challenge.”
Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, had no immediate comment on Gorbea’s announcement.
John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said that sending the applications out now, rather than later, will help election administrators avoid a last-minute rush of applications that could cause “gridlock.”
“We like to talk about flattening the mail ballot curve,” Marion said. “You don’t want to have most applications at the last second.”
He said it’s also good that Gorbea proposed a plan for handling the influx of mail ballot applications, which could overwhelm local boards of canvassers if they didn’t have help from the National Guard.
“We need a plan for how to handle record turnout and a shift to increased use of mail ballots,” Marion said.
Gorbea emphasized that National Guard members will not be evaluating the applications or deciding whether voters qualify for a mail ballot, and they will not be near the ballots themselves.
“The Guard will only be opening the envelopes, unfolding the paper, putting them into piles that are sorted by city and town, and that’s it,” she said. “I know that doesn’t seem like a lot, but it is.”
The deadline to register to vote in the Nov. 3 election is Oct. 4, and the deadline to submit a mail ballot application is Oct. 13. An early in-person voting period will begin on Oct. 14.
Voters can track the status of their mail ballot application and their mail ballot at vote.ri.gov. And this year, voters can also call 2-1-1 with any election questions.