PROVIDENCE — The primary for the First Congressional District seat will take place on Sept. 5 and the general election will be held on Nov. 7, Governor Daniel J. McKee announced Wednesday.
Rhode Island is holding a special election to fill the seat that Democratic US Representative David N. Cicilline will vacate on June 1 to become president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation. His surprise announcement prompted a long list of people to either announce candidacies or to weigh a run for the congressional seat.
Secretary of State Gregg M. Amore had outlined two scheduling proposals for the special election: One involved holding the primary on Aug. 8 and the general election on Oct. 3, while another proposed holding the primary on Sept. 5 and the general election on Nov. 7.
McKee chose the latter schedule, saying, “Voting is the hallmark of our democracy, and our goal is to make it as understandable as possible for both candidates and voters to ensure the highest turnout possible.”
He said his team is working with the Secretary of State’s Office and the Board of Elections ensure residents know about the special election.
“Members of Congress play key roles in ensuring that Rhode Island is represented in Washington, D.C., and we want to ensure Rhode Islanders are participating in selecting their next representative,” McKee said.
The governor will sign a formal writ of election when Cicilline’s seat is officially vacant on June 1.
Amore said the scheduling decision involved balancing participation and representation.
“That is a delicate balance,” he 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.”
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 few 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.
John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said a conflict still exists between state and federal law regarding the timing between the primary and general election. Rhode Island is now ignoring the state law to comply with the federal law, but the state law needs to be amended to allow the full two months between the primary and general that the governor proposed, he said.
“People will be familiar with the September/November timeline because it’s very close to what have historically done,” Marion said. “I think for special elections, when there is a vacancy, there are stronger arguments for keeping the gap between the primary and general election shorter because the state is without representation.”
But in general, Common Cause Rhode Island supports moving the primaries earlier to give election officials more time to prepare for the general elections, Marion said. In 2022, Rhode Island tied with Delaware and New Hampshire for having the latest primaries in the election cycle, he said. And Common Cause backs a proposal made by Amore to move Rhode Island’s primary to late August, he said.
Brown University political science Professor Wendy J. Schiller said the special election schedule “makes perfect sense.”
“People are used to voting the week after Labor Day in primaries in Rhode Island, and they are used to voting on Nov. 7 in general elections,” Schiller said. “If you want to maximize participation, you can’t hold a primary in August in Rhode Island. It has some of the best beaches in the country, and the last few weeks of August are the last time for families to take vacation.”
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.
So far, the announced candidates include, in alphabetical order: Democrats Nicholas A. Autiello II, Stephanie Beauté, Representative Nathan W. Biah, Senator Sandra C. Cano, Representative Stephen Casey, Providence City Council member John Goncalves, Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, and Allen Waters. Republican Aaron Guckian, a former candidate for lieutenant governor, has also said he is considering running for the seat.