State elections panel will examine all signatures collected by Matos campaign
In about-face, board seeks clarity, future lessons on improving candidate certification process
Rhode Island Board of Elections Executive Director Robert Rapoza, left foreground, and board member Randy Jackvony, right, are shown during the board’s meeting Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 8, 2023. (Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)
Better safe than sorry.
So has concluded the Rhode Island Board of Elections, opting to review all 1,256 signatures gathered on Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos’ nomination papers for the 1st Congressional District race. The panel’s 5-2 vote Tuesday comes just weeks after it certified the signatures that guarantee Matos’ spot on the Sept. 5 primary ballot.
Matos’ campaign has been under siege for allegedly forged signatures on nomination forms spanning multiple cities and towns. The fraud is also under investigation by the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General and Rhode Island State Police.
Many of the fake signatures were thrown out by local boards of canvassers, which first reviewed campaign nomination papers. Others that were validated and certified by the Rhode Island Secretary of State but were then found to be allegedly forged, as first uncovered by WPRI.
“If I were to guess, I think we’re going to find a handful of signatures that shouldn’t have counted and a handful of signatures that should have counted,” said Randy Jackvony, the board member who proposed revisiting the signatures.
“The number of signatures is not going to change fundamentally. But I think we could learn things that we could share together with local boards of canvassers.”
Of the 1,256 signatures the Matos campaign turned in to municipal election authorities, 728 were validated and certified by the state.
As for what to do if the board uncovers wider fraud than already detected, Jackvony said, “we’ll deal with that if it comes to that.”
Not every election board member agreed.
Use of staff resources questioned
Chairwoman Diane Mederos and Vice Chairman David Sholes both voted against the look back, questioning the purpose of using staff time and resources for a review that seemed unlikely to ultimately change anything in the upcoming election. Sholes also said the attorney general’s office was better equipped to handle any fraud charges that may result from a more thorough review.
Brian Hodge, a spokesperson for Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office, said in an email on Tuesday that the criminal investigation remains ongoing, but that there were no updates to share.
While Sholes touted the attorney general’s power and experience in a potential fraud investigation, another election board member was not pleased, instead suggesting the panel open its own civil investigation.
“I think people have to be assured of the integrity of that election and have to be assured that everyone involved in the election has done so legally,” said Louis DiSimone. “Our burden goes beyond what the attorney general’s burden is.”
DiSimone wanted to subpoena all 11 people who gathered signatures on Matos’ behalf, asking them to testify under oath in a future hearing. Other board members did not back up his proposal.
That’s in part because the board may not have the power to change the number of certified signatures, according to Raymond Marcaccio, the board’s legal counsel. While state law empowers the elections panel to review signatures even after they are certified, it’s less clear what grounds they could use to change the number of already certified signatures, he said.
The number of signatures is not going to change fundamentally. But I think we could learn things that we could share together with local boards of canvassers.
– Randy Jackvony, Rhode Island Board of Elections member
Either way, the review still holds value, said Jennifer Johnson, another board member.
“Voters deserve there not to be a cloud over this process,” she said, adding that in hindsight, she would have “done it differently” when voting to certify Matos’ signatures in July. Jackvony cast the sole vote of opposition on that decision.
The review of Matos signatures could begin as early as Wednesday, with a group of up to 10 seasonal elections workers tapped to compare the signatures on Matos’ nomination papers against those in the state’s central database. Rapoza was unsure how long it would take to complete the review, but said he expected to “have something” by next week.
In an emailed statement Tuesday, Evan England, a spokesperson for Matos’ campaign, expressed support for the review.
“Rhode Islanders deserve to have confidence in our democratic process,” England said. “We too want to understand what transpired with our nomination papers and we look forward to hearing the results of this review.”
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