PROVIDENCE — After seeing the names of dead people listed on Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos’ nomination papers, a Jamestown Board of Canvassers member is calling for the state Board of Elections to investigate all nomination papers submitted in the First Congressional District race.
Ken Newman, who said he was speaking as an individual and not as a representative of Jamestown or its Board of Canvassers, also urged the Board of Elections to adopt practices, akin to the risk-limiting audits conducted after elections, to check the validity of nomination papers for all 14 candidates based on representative samples.
“I want to frame this not as an attempt to demonize or discredit Sabina Matos or her campaign,” Newman said Monday. “It just feels as if we really should be looking at this issue in its entirety. There should be a very clear investigation of all of the nomination papers, and we need to give members of the local boards of canvassers more support in terms of their process and some clarity.”
Newman said he is seeking to be placed on the agenda for a Board of Elections meeting next week to present his recommendations.
“One thing that happens in short-runway elections like this is that people are under a lot of pressure, and when people are under pressure, they tend to cut corners,” Newman said. “Maybe others did, too. We don’t know, and the only way to know is to get to the bottom of it.”
The Board of Elections had no immediate comment on Newman’s requests Monday, spokesman Christopher Hunter said. The board is scheduled to meet at 2 p.m. Tuesday, and the agenda includes a closed-door executive session “to discuss and review the status of an investigation pertaining to nomination papers submitted on behalf of U.S. Congressional candidate Sabina Matos.”
On July 17, the Jamestown Board of Canvassers asked the police to investigate a nomination sheet containing 17 signatures that Newman said included the names of dead people in addition to people who are alive but who say they never signed the document. Within days, the Newport Canvassing Authority and the East Providence Canvassing Authority asked the police to probe signatures submitted for Matos.
On July 21, the Board of Elections voted to refer all of Matos’ nomination papers to the attorney general’s office for investigation, but it said Matos had more than enough valid signatures to appear on the Sept. 5 Democratic primary ballot. The board did not take up a challenge filed by the campaign of another Democratic congressional candidate, Don Carlson, because neither Carlson nor his campaign manager attended the hearing.
Later that day, Matos held a news conference and said a vendor hired by her campaign — Harmony Solutions — had “engaged in a widespread and outrageous attempt to defraud my campaign, the people of Rhode Island, and the democratic process.” A lawyer for the owner of Harmony Solutions, Holly McClaren, on July 25 said she “did not forge” names on those nomination papers.
But Newman said he would like to see the Board of Elections “reopen the issue” and look at the nomination papers submitted by all the candidates. He said the Matos scandal exposed some of the shortcomings in the process used to check on the validity of nominating signatures, and he said it highlighted some confusion about the roles that various entities play in that process.
“It revealed a lot of issues in the system, and it’s not sufficient to just sweep it under the carpet,” Newman said. “It needs to be addressed.”
The attorney general’s office and the State Police have begun investigating the matter, but he noted that Attorney General Peter F. Neronha has made clear that authorities will be looking to see if any crimes were committed and won’t be looking to validate all the signatures submitted.
The Board of Elections has said under Rhode Island law, the verification of candidate nomination papers is conducted by local boards of canvassers. But Newman argued that nothing prevents the Board of Elections from checking on the validity of signatures and invalidating them, with or without a complaint filed by a candidate, and he said there are big variations in how local boards approach signature verification.
“There needs to be more training and more unanimity of guidance,” he said, “and the Board of Elections needs to assume more responsibility for this entire process.”
Newman also called for greater clarity on what software is available to help verify the signatures of voters. And he emphasized that the way people sign their names has changed a lot over the past five to 10 years because so many use their fingers to sign screens at stores and restaurants. Those signatures are less precise and more difficult to check against signatures written with pens and kept on record by election officials, he said.
John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said he, too, believes the Board of Elections can review signatures submitted to any and all boards of canvassers, even without a complaint, because the state board has clear statutory oversight powers over local election officials.
“So they could have done that at that (July 19) meeting instead of kicking that issue to Peter Neronha and relying on the somewhat inconsistent work of the local boards of canvassers,” he said. “Despite the deficit complaint from Carlson, they had the ability in his absence, to review any complaint.”
But at this point, ballots have been printed and sent to military and overseas voters, Marion said. “So I don’t see a path for the Board of Elections or the secretary of state to claw back the ballot,” he said. Rhode Island might even run afoul of federal law if it attempted to recall those ballots now, he said.
Still, Marion said he sees value in the Board of Elections examining all of the signatures submitted in the First Congressional District race to evaluate the performance of the local boards of canvassers. “We would learn from a review which boards of canvassers performed well and which didn’t,” he said, “and we would learn what needs to be fixed for the next time.”
Marion noted that more elections are coming up next year, and he said, “It is squarely the Board of Elections’ responsibility to supervise the 39 boards of canvassers in the State of Rhode Island.”