After signature scandal, Jamestown election authorities call for state-led candidate training
The Jamestown Board of Canvassers voted Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, to ask the Rhode Island Secretary of State to lead a candidate training about signature collection. (Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)
Jamestown election authorities were the first to flag signatures on Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos’ Congressional campaign nomination papers for potential forgeries.
Now, the Jamestown Board of Canvassers is leading the charge to improve education and training for candidates and local canvassing boards.
The board on Friday voted 2-0 to ask the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office to organize a campaign training for candidates, including information about how to gather signatures, and where to turn them in. The third board member, Hugh Murphy, did not attend the meeting.
Carol Nelson-Lee, board chairwoman, recounted tales from several candidates who did not meet the signature requirement to qualify for the primary ballot and were unaware or unsure of the process. Four of those candidates appealed to the Rhode Island Board of Elections after failing to meet the 500-signature minimum, though all four requests for re-examination of signatures were ultimately denied.
“They could not cure the problems candidates faced, all they could do is follow the statute,” said Ken Newman, who also serves on the Jamestown canvassing board.
Newman also referenced racism and harassment that several of the candidates, many of whom are people of color, recounted in their appeals to the state elections panel.
“Is the field level for all the candidates?” he questioned.
How to solve the inequality is a bigger conversation. But it starts with making sure every candidate, and their volunteers and staffers, know how to collect signatures on their campaign nomination papers, Newman said.
Faith Chybowski, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office, said in an email on Friday that the office “remains committed to providing candidates and voters the resources they need throughout the election process, and will certainly review the Board of Canvassers’ request.”
Another key component, according to Newman and Nelson-Lee, is training the local election authorities who act as the first layer of review on signature papers.
Newman lauded Jamestown Canvassing Clerk Keith Ford for his “care and observation” in detecting signatures of dead residents on Matos’ nomination papers. But not every municipal election worker had the same expertise or attention to detail.
Only three boards ultimately reported fraudulent signatures on Matos’ papers to their local police departments or Rhode Island State Police, despite news reports later unveiling other allegedly forged signatures that made it through inspection.
“One of the things this showed was that some members of boards of canvassers felt as if they hadn’t had enough training to be able to, for instance, look at signatures in the way that handwriting specialists would train them to look at signatures,” Newman said.
The Rhode Island Board of Elections also stressed the need for more education and training for local boards of canvassers at a recent meeting, though next steps in that process remain unclear. Chris Hunter, a spokesperson for the state election board, referred to prior comments by Chairwoman Diane Mederos when asked for an update on Friday.
While there was no formal vote taken, Newman and Nelson-Lee backed Secretary of State Gregg Amore’s push for more time to collect, review and certify signatures ahead of primary day. The state election board also blamed lack of time as the reason why it initially chose not to review Matos’ signatures despite fraud allegations.
“When you put candidates and people working for candidates in that tight a time frame …it’s more likely people cut corners because of that pressure,” Newman said.
The state board of elections is slated to meet on Tuesday, Aug. 15 to announce results from its review of Matos’ nomination papers, and potentially, vote on further action. The Office of the Attorney General is also investigating her campaign for potential criminal charges.
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