Forget waiting in line to vote. Early voting, mail ballots on rise in R.I.

By: - September 21, 2023 5:01 am

In Little Compton, early and mail ballots accounted for 207 of the 495 votes cast, or 42% of the turnout, in the special primaries for the 1st Congressional District race on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023. The official ballot box on the Town Common is shown in August. (Janine l. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)

Five years ago, 95% of Rhode Islanders who voted in statewide primaries cast their ballots in-person on a single, designated primary day.

These days, not so much.

Nearly a third of the voters who participated in the Sept. 5. special congressional primaries cast ballots by mail or early, in-person voting, rather on the day of the primary itself, according to official results certified by the Rhode Island Board of Elections. And election administrators anticipate that number will swell in future election years as voters adjust to the expanded array of options.

“One reason you are seeing an uptick is because people are getting to experience it, and talking about it,” said Rhode Island Secretary of State Gregg Amore. “When these things were first implemented, I don’t think people realized it was available. I expect it to become a lot more popular in the next few election cycles.”

Early, in-person voting especially. The 2023 special primaries marked the third election cycle in which residents could show up for designated, in-person voting hours starting 20 days before the actual election day. Originally termed “emergency in-person voting” under a 2020 law passed in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the option was enshrined and expanded ahead of the 2022 election cycle under a comprehensive voting reform bill known as the Let RI Vote Act. The law also let voters request a mail-in ballot without having to give a reason, and offered the option to apply for a mail ballot electronically, the latter of which was implemented for the first time this year.

Proponents tout these expansions as ways to improve voter turnout and access while easing the pressure on election administrators on Election Day itself.

But getting voters to embrace those changes remains a work in progress.

Newport voter Susan Monk, left, inserts her ballot into the voting machine at the Newport Public Library on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023. At right is warden Meredith LeBlanc. About 63% of Newport voters cast their ballots in person that day in the 1st Congressional District special primaries. (Janine L. Weisman)

Distrust of mail-in ballots continues, thanks in part to misinformation spread during the 2020 presidential election.

Jason Roias, who managed Sen. Ana Quezada’s 2023 congressional campaign in the Democratic primary, heard many of those same false narratives from voters on the campaign trail.

“Folks think it’s unethical, they think it’s illegal, they just don’t trust it,” Roias said.

For voters of both political parties, too.

While far fewer of the voters who participated in the Republican congressional primary mailed in their ballots (just under 10% of the 4,000 ballots cast), Democrats also expressed reluctance.

“I don’t think it’s one party or another,” said Cara Cromwell, a public affairs consultant who volunteered on Gabe Amo’s campaign. “I think people are just a little unsure about the process. 

Folks think it’s unethical, they think it’s illegal, they just don’t trust it.

– Jason Roias, campaign manager for 1st Congressional District Democratic candidate Sen. Ana Quezada

Still, just under 15% of ballots cast in the Democratic congressional primary were done so by mail, according to official results. By comparison, 12.7% of voters opted to vote by mail during the statewide primaries in 2022, according to state data.

Early, in-person voting also grew in popularity compared with last year, with 18.5% of ballots cast in either Republican or Democratic primaries coming from early, in-person voting. By comparison, 12.3% of voters who participated in the statewide 2022 primaries voted early and in-person.

Amore didn’t take much stock in the year-to-year comparison, since the latest round was a special election with only one major race. He was holding off until after next year’s presidential primary and general election to draw any conclusions about changes in voter behavior.

Statistically speaking, the differences between 2022 and 2023 ballots by voting method are not much different, said Miguel Nunez, the Rhode Island Board of Elections’ deputy director.

Are early adopters more likely to turn out in special election?

Another consideration: Only the most motivated and politically active residents are likely to vote in a special election, which are often the same people willing to try out early or mail voting, said John Marion, executive director for Common Cause Rhode Island.

“It’s still evolving, so we can’t really say it has settled into a pattern yet,” Marion said of voting behavior.

Case in point: The 2020 election, though largely considered an aberration because of the pandemic, showed Rhode Island voters nearly evenly divided between early voting, mail-in ballots and voting on Election Day.

Nevertheless, the days of everyone lining up outside their designated polling place on Election Day might be gone forever.

Candidates and campaign consultants have already adjusted accordingly, rallying supporters to vote early or mail a ballot in rather than waiting until Election Day. Some candidates even cast their own ballots ahead of Primary Day, signaling to supporters how seamless it could be.

It’s a strategy which not only expands voter access, but helps campaigns assess their chances earlier on by “banking” votes, said Cromwell.

“If you can get that 25% of supporters who you know are for you to vote early or mail in their ballots, then the remainder of your time can be focused on that 75% who might still be undecided,” she said.

Volunteers and campaign workers with Quezada’s campaign, for example, handed out mail ballot applications to anyone who signed her nomination papers and while door knocking, Roias said. The effort paid off. 

Though Quezada placed seventh in the Democratic primary, she had the third-highest number of mail-in ballots, and was the only candidate with more votes from mail ballots than through early or same day in-person voting. 

“It was definitely a strategic approach,” said Roias, adding that many of Quezada’s supporters were older and may have had mobility or transportation limitations that prevented them from voting in-person. “Anyone we had identified as a supporter we told them to fill out a mail ballot.” 

And for those still hesitant about the security of mail ballots, Quezada’s campaign offered rides to and from Providence City Hall during the 20 days of early voting.

“We were taking a handful of folks every day,” Roias said.

Mail ballots king in Providence 

In most cities and towns within the 1st Congressional District, voters were more likely to cast ballots early than by mail. Not Providence. The 1,649 mail-in ballots cast in the Democratic congressional primary were more than 2½ times the number of ballots cast through early, in-person voting.

Marion chalked up the difference to voting culture in different areas of the state.

Roias also pointed out that Providence’s early voting spot, City Hall, lacked the free and accessible parking that many other municipalities had, which might dissuade city residents from taking advantage of it.

Josh Estrella, spokesperson for Providence Mayor Brett Smiley, said the city set aside four parking spots across from City Hall for early voting, allowing voters to park without paying for 15 minutes. However, voters weren’t told about this unless they called City Hall.

Neither Estrella nor Amore said their respective offices received complaints about parking problems with early voting in Providence.

But Cromwell said anything that makes it harder to vote could be a deterrent, including parking issues.

The flip side, of course, is that more people will vote the easier it is. Which is why election advocates continue to push for ways to improve access to the ballot box. 

Topping Amore’s list of legislative priorities is same-day voter registration, along with policies that would give candidates and election workers more time to collect and certify signatures on their nomination papers.

Marion, meanwhile, named mandatory weekend early voting hours as an important addition. Existing state law allows cities and towns to decide whether to hold early voting on weekends, which none did in the most recent primaries.

“It’s damn near criminal that we only have it during weekday business hours,” Roias agreed. 


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.