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Are mail ballots the future of elections?

By Arlene Violet
Posted 4/17/20

The coronavirus has not only wreaked havoc on people’s health and the economy but also threatens to upset the presidential election. In Rhode Island the Presidential  Preference Primary is …

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Are mail ballots the future of elections?

Posted

The coronavirus has not only wreaked havoc on people’s health and the economy but also threatens to upset the presidential election. In Rhode Island the Presidential  Preference Primary is June 2 with May 3 as the deadline to register (May 4 is the deadline to disaffiliate). I thought I would talk with Secretary of State, Nellie Gorbea, about her plans for this upcoming election, the September Primary, and the General Election in November. What will be the role of mail ballots?

Secretary Gorbea has long been an advocate for mail ballots. In former days only an emergency was grounds for voting by mail. Now, in addition to emergencies, undue hardship because of illness or disability, health confinement in a hospital or health care, temporary absence because of employment or service or family members residing with that person, a voter unable to vote at his/her voting place are eligible to use a mail ballot. In speaking with the governor and legislative leadership, Secretary Gorbea expects an executive order by Governor Raimondo to broaden the use of the mail ballot for the June election because of the pandemic. It is too early to tell if she will ask the legislature to extend broader provisions for the September and November elections until the pandemic plays out.

 For June 2020, Secretary Gorbea will send out applications and information to allow people to register to vote by mail. After the elector mails in the registration with the postage-paid envelope, the ballot will be sent also with a postage-paid envelope to return it. Ms. Gorbea doesn’t have control over the election day operations (that’s the RI Board of Elections and the local Board of Canvassers) but she would support one or more polling places depending on the size of the municipality. The Board of Elections verifies all mail ballots and feeds them  through the mail ballot machine starting 20 days before the election. The count of the votes will only  be revealed on Election Day.

Voters have until May 19 to request a mail ballot. Voters can return their voted ballot in the postage-paid envelope any time before 8 p.m. on June 2. Voters who miss the May 19 deadline can go to their local canvasser  to secure a mail ballot.

If the coronavirus perdures until the fall, the same procedure may be followed. Folks understandably would be frustrated not knowing who won the presidency or other offices so the rolling time frame would allow for counting as ballots were verified and fed into the machine.

I asked Secretary Gorbea two more questions: Is this upcoming election based on the decision of how to conduct it the biggest challenge to election officials? I also asked whether the mail ballot was the future of elections? She thought yes. Right now 5 states, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington, after years of preparation, converted to an only-by-mail ballot system. California, joining North Dakota and Nebraska, will allow any county to choose an all-mail ballot election.

Personally, I support an all-mail ballot system, as long as fraud safeguards are in place. When we regularly hear of the hijacking of votes done through the internet this paper ballot system might very well be the way to avert interference. What do you think?

Arlene Violet is an attorney and former Rhode Island Attorney General.

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Arlene Violet

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