PROVIDENCE — In a state that savors its politics as much as its Del’s lemonade, a summertime campaign for a vacant congressional seat might be as welcome as a day at the beach.
Secretary of State Gregg M. Amore on Wednesday outlined two scheduling proposals for the special election to fill the First Congressional District seat that US Representative David N. Cicilline is vacating: One option involves holding the primary election on Aug. 8 and the general election on Oct. 3, while another option involves holding the primary on Sept. 5 and the general election on Nov. 7.
The Democratic primary is viewed as consequential in the First Congressional District, which spans the eastern half of the state, stretching from Woonsocket to Newport, and is considered more liberal than the Second Congressional District.
By law, Governor Daniel J. McKee will decide when Rhode Islanders will go to the polls to pick a successor to Cicilline, a Democrat who shocked the political realm Tuesday by announcing he will resign to become president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.
“The governor cannot issue the formal writ of election until there is a vacancy for that seat,” McKee press secretary Olivia DaRocha said. “We will have more to say on the timing of the special election in the coming weeks.”
Amore said he is working in consultation with the governor’s office and the state Board of Elections to analyze the factors that go into the schedule. In many ways, the decision comes down to how to balance participation and representation.
“That is a delicate balance,” Amore said. “We want people to be informed and know this is an important election, but we also want to have a member voting in the House of Representatives on Rhode Island’s behalf. The more you push it off, the more time you are not represented.”
When US Senator John H. Chafee died in 1999, then-Governor Lincoln Almond appointed Lincoln D. Chafee to fill his father’s seat. But Amore noted vacancies in the House are governed by a separate law, which calls for a special election with no interim appointment, and he noted the General Assembly changed the law governing Senate vacancies in 2009, requiring special elections with no interim appointment.
Cicilline, a former Providence mayor who has been in Congress for 12 years, plans to step down from his congressional seat on May 31.
Once that vacancy is declared, McKee will officially announce when the special election will take place, although the decision will be known well before then, Amore said.
One of the key considerations is the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act, a 2009 law that mandates that members of the military and overseas residents receive mail ballots no later than 45 days before each election, he said.
“That drives this process,” Amore said. “We have to build that into the mix.”
The state is planning to have a two-day candidate declaration period, followed by a 10-day window for prospective candidates to collect the 500 signatures required to appear on the ballots, he said.
Election officials will take a couple of days to verify signatures, the Department of State will take a few more days to create and print ballots, and then the 45-day period will commence to comply with the MOVE Act, he said.
Given those requirements, the earliest the primaries could take place would be early August, Amore said. And state law requires that the special election take place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in any given month, so that would mean the earliest possible primary date would be Aug. 8.
“That is not set in stone,” Amore noted. “It has been offered as an option for the governor and the Board of Elections to consider. This is all very preliminary.”
But he said the state will be sure to meet the federal law’s requirements.
“While this is a special election, we want voters to be assured that it will feel very similar to the regular elections they have experienced before,” Amore said. “Our office recognizes how critically important it is that all eligible voters have access to their ballot, including our military members who may currently be out of the country, and the special election will comply with federal law. We will continue to prioritize enfranchisement in all of our elections planning activity.”
The prospect of an open congressional seat has already generated a swirl of interest, with a running list of potential candidates that includes former gubernatorial candidate Helena Buonanno Foulkes, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, Attorney General Peter F. Neronha, Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera, Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dawn Euer, Senator Meghan Kallman, and former Providence City Council member Nirva LaFortune.
Amore said there is no limit to how many names can appear on the ballot. “As long as you qualify, you are on the ballot,” he said.
While some people expect low turnout in a special election, Amore noted that Rhode Island has not had a special election for Congress in decades.
In 1967, Democratic US Representative John E. Fogarty died, setting up a special election in which Robert O. Tiernan, a Democratic state senator, defeated James DiPrete Jr., then the Republican mayor of Cranston. Tiernan had defeated former governor John A. Notte Jr. for the nomination.
“I actually think this will garner a lot of attention,” Amore said. While some Rhode Islanders are bound to be vacationing in August, he said, “We do have early voting and no-excuse mail balloting now.”
John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said a Bipartisan Policy Center study found that contrary to expectations, states that hold primaries during the summer months of July or August tended to have higher turnout than states that hold primaries in the spring or fall.
While that study examined normal elections rather than special elections, he said, “The conventional wisdom that everyone is on vacation in August and will not vote is not true.” He noted that two of the few states with August primaries are in New England: Connecticut and Vermont.
“I don’t expect there is going to be historically high turnout simply because it’s a special election and you won’t have candidates throughout the ballot trying to turnout voters. There is only this one contest,” Marion said. “That said, I would expect that if we have a lot of candidates and the field is not winnowed, that will help mobilize voters.”
Marion said the First Congressional District race won’t affect the balance of power in Congress, and it’s considered “a fairly safe Democratic district” in part because of the “gerrymandering” done in 2010 to help Cicilline win his first re-election campaign.
But Marion said he expects the election will draw attention and help set the scene for Rhode Island’s summer of 2023.
“Will the Palagi’s ice cream truck be playing campaign theme songs?” he joked. “Will we have planes towing campaign banners over Second Beach? Is Joe Trillo going to rent out his boat?”