PROVIDENCE — As Rhode Islanders head to the polls today, they are beginning to settle into a new pattern of voting that mixes mail ballots and early voting with the tradition of showing up at the polls on election day.
Before the polls opened this morning, nearly 28,000 residents had already voted with mail ballots or in early voting, representing a turnout of 3.5 percent.
Far fewer people are using mail ballots and early voting than in 2020, when the pandemic was surging. In the 2020 general election, 39 percent of voters cast their ballots on Election Day, while 33 percent used mail ballots, and 29 percent voted early. And in the 2020 primaries, 51 percent of voters cast their ballots on election day, while 41 percent used mail ballots, and 8 percent used early voting, according to the secretary of state’s office.
But far more are using mail ballots and early voting than in the 2018 primaries, for example, when 95 percent of the voters cast ballots on election day, 5 percent used mail ballots, and early voting was not a category.
That’s in part because the General Assembly passed the Let RI Vote Act, which permanently adopted measures used in 2020 during the pandemic, such as eliminating notary or witness requirements for mail ballots. Also, the secretary of state’s office sent out mail ballot applications to all registered voters before the 2020 general elections (but not before the 2020 statewide primaries).
A spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, Johnathan Berard, said the high proportion of mail ballots and early voting in 2020 will probably look like an anomaly in years to come, and it’s too soon to say how much Rhode Islanders will use the three voting options in the future.
“Voters now have choices of early voting, mail ballots, or voting at polling locations on election day, and it will take awhile for the data to settle out,” Berard said. “We are only one election out from the pandemic, and this is the first election where the codification of changes made in the Let RI Vote Act are in place, so it’s hard to make an assumption based on a single data point.”
John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said the state will need a few election cycles to gauge what the new permanent voting pattern will be, but this year is bound to see an increased percentage of voters casting ballots by mail and early voting as compared to pre-pandemic levels.
“In 2020, tens of thousands of people tried voting early or by mail for the first time and many of them liked it,” Marion said. “And that is what we have seen in other states: As you make voting more convenient and provide other forms of voting, people take advantage of the opportunity.”
To stay up to date on today’s turnout, go to the secretary of state’s RI Voter Turnout Tracker.
The state Board of Elections released the following timeline to help Rhode Islanders understand when votes will be counted and reported:
Tuesday, Sept. 13:
Ballots cast in-person at polling places on Tuesday will be securely transmitted from the polling place to the Board of Elections after polls close at 8 p.m., and unofficial results will be available on the Board of Elections’ website (elections.ri.gov) beginning at 8 p.m.
Reporting percentages on the website will be based on the number of polling places reporting. For example, if Barrington is displayed as 50 percent reporting, that indicates three of the six polling places in Barrington have reported.
These results will be transmitted by local boards of canvassers to the Board of Elections on Tuesday beginning at 8 p.m.
While the Board of Elections expects to count most mail ballots by Tuesday, ballots placed in authorized drop boxes at city and town halls or in polling places must still be tabulated. These ballots are sealed in envelopes and held in secure and sealed containers by the local boards of canvassers and will be retrieved by Board of Elections teams.
Wednesday and Thursday, Sept. 14-15:
Remaining drop box ballots and any still uncounted mail ballots will be added to the mail ballot totals and made available on the Board of Elections website. Any precincts that failed to transmit their results on election night because of technical issues will be added to the election day results and made available on the Board of Elections website.
Friday through Monday, Sept. 16-19:
Military/overseas ballots and deficient mail ballots cured by voters and due to the Board of Elections by Sept. 16 will be added to mail ballots results and made available on the Board of Elections website before final certification.
Deficient mail ballots cured by voters and due to the Board of Elections by Sept. 20 will be added to mail ballot results and made available on the Board of Elections website before final certification.