PROVIDENCE — So far, nearly 55,000 Rhode Island residents have cast votes at city and town halls prior to Election Day, Board of Elections executive director Robert Rapoza said during a news conference Thursday.
In the span of half an hour, as the news conference was being held, about 500 voters turned in their ballots, he said.
In addition to those who chose to vote early, more than 113,000 voters have submitted mail ballots, meaning that more than 168,000 Rhode Islanders have already voted, leaving the state more than one-third of the way to setting a new record for total voters in a modern election.
In 2008, a record 475,428 Rhode Islanders cast votes, according to the secretary of state’s website.
“The Board of Elections is very pleased by the turnout to date by the voters,” Rapoza said, projecting that 158,000 out of more than 795,000 registered voters will participate in an unprecedented level of early voting this year.
Amid the pandemic and a volatile political environment, state officials are reluctant to predict levels of overall turnout. But one thing is clear: “This election is not like any other in history,” Rapoza said.
And officials say they are preparing in case this unusual election year ends up smashing records.
Rhode Island has accepted emergency ballots before Election Day in previous years. But this year, for the first time in a general election, the state is allowing voters to go to their city and town halls and place their mail ballots directly into voting machines in the 20 days before the election.
Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea sent mail ballot applications to all registered voters. Nearly 175,440 people applied, and 113,567 voters have already submitted completed mail ballots to the Board of Elections as of Thursday.
Gorbea predicted that about half of Rhode Island’s votes will be cast by mail or in early voting, while half will be cast in person on Election Day.
Rapoza said the state will have 366 polling sites open on Election Day to accept ballots from 421 precincts.
Amid the coronavirus outbreak, elections officials are finding it difficult to recruit poll workers, but the Board of Elections has sent the names of 3,600 potential poll workers to local boards of canvassers, he said.
With all the variables at play this year, when will election results be ready?
Rapoza said the Board of Elections website will display unofficial Election Day voting results after the polls close at 8 p.m., and cities and towns will transmit the results of early in-person voting at 10 p.m. on Election Day.
But it remains unclear when the state will finish counting mail ballots and release final total results. Mail ballots placed in drop boxes will be transported to the Board of Elections on Nov. 4, the day after the election, Rapoza said. In the past, Rhode Island has not released mail ballot totals until all the mail ballots were counted.
The Board of Elections will meet on Monday to decide whether to release partial mail ballot totals, Rapoza said, but he expects all mail ballots to be counted “As quickly as possible.”
While intimidation at the polls may not be much of a concern, Gorbea noted that voting security and misinformation are top of mind.
“There is a lot of noise this year, and many attempts to undermine faith we have in our democracy,” Gorbea said.
She noted that on Wednesday night, U.S. officials said Iran is responsible for emails sent to Democratic voters in multiple states aimed at intimidating the recipients into voting for President Donald Trump. "That kind of announcement makes us realize that these threats are real and constant,” she said.
Gorbea said anyone who suspects that voter misinformation is being disseminated in Rhode Island should send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joseph R. Bonavolonta, the FBI special agent in charge of the Boston field office that oversees Rhode Island, said disinformation campaigns can include false information spread on social media about polling hours, polling places, or voting results, for example.
“Just do simple due diligence and fact checking and cross referencing to try to verify the bona fides of that individual or groups that you are engaging with,” he said. “It sounds simplistic, but if actually practiced, it can significantly mitigate this type of a threat.”
Attorney General Peter F. Neronha said he does not expect significant attempts at voter intimidation in Rhode Island, but he said his office will take any such attempts seriously. On Election Day, the attorney general will have a team at the office, ready to “respond civilly and criminally should a significant problem arise,” Neronha said. Voters can report complaints by emailing the office at email@example.com between now and Election Day, or by calling ( 401) 243-2355 on Election Day.