Middletown bond recount request confronts obscure state elections regulation

How not spending $1,200 sparked a debate over fairness in municipal ballot question campaigns

By: - November 16, 2023 8:39 pm

From left, Michael and Terri Flynn, Paul Mankofsky, and Audrey Macleod-Pfeiffer, members of Middletown Concerned Neighbors, attend the Rhode Island Board of Elections meeting on Nov. 16, 2023, in the hopes of getting a recount on the Nov. 7 bond measure. (Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)

A little-known provision of state election board rules has come under scrutiny after a citizen group’s attempt to challenge results of a Middletown bond referendum.

Middletown Concerned Neighbors asked for a recount of the $190 million school bond question that narrowly passed in the Nov. 7 special election. The Rhode Island Board of Elections took up the request for a recount on Thursday.

The anti-bond group didn’t get their wish, partly because the 125 vote-margin on the ballot question, while small, was still too wide to trigger a recount under state law. But the request opened up new questions about a 13-year-old rule that dictates who gets to ask for a recount.

“It’s too rigid, and it kind of works against the will of the people, especially small groups,” said Audrey Macleod-Pfeiffer, a Middletown resident and member of Middletown Concerned Neighbors.

The regulation, first adopted by the board in 2010, says that only people or groups with “recognized standing” can ask for recounts on state or local ballot questions. As in,  spending money.

The spending threshold depends on total votes cast; at its lowest level, for ballot questions where fewer than 1,000 votes are cast, the group or person has to spend at least $1,000 on advocacy. On the end of the scale, ballot questions with more than 200,000 votes cast require a $50,000 spend.

The Rhode Island Board of Elections meets on Nov. 16, 2023, to consider recount requests for all Nov. 7 elections, including a bond measure that narrowly passed in Middletown. (Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)

In Middletown, just over 4,000 voters cast ballots on the school bond question, which corresponds with a minimum $5,000 in spending. 

Middletown Concerned Neighbors came up short, spending $3,800 on its anti-bond campaign, a combination of print advertisements in area publications, yard signs and fliers, according to its campaign finance report. However, its estimated expenses do not include any in-kind expenses, like, for example, the “hundreds of hours” that Macleod-Pfeiffer said she and other residents logged on their campaign to kill the bond measure. 

The regulations don’t address in-kind spending, nor do they distinguish between statewide ballot questions and municipal ones. Which rubbed some election board members the wrong way.

“For small communities, $5,000 is a lot of money,” Board Member Louis DeSimone said during discussion on Thursday. “To me, it seems like a high threshold.”

Indeed, a community group backing a $200 million bond in the Bristol-Warren School District on the November ballot reported spending just under $1,300, while an anti-bond group in North Kingstown spent just over $1,400 to defeat the $222 million “megabond” on the Nov. 6 ballot, according to their filed campaign finance reports.

For small communities, $5,000 is a lot of money. To me, it seems like a high threshold.

– Board Member Louis DeSimone said during discussion on Thursday.

Board Member Randy Jackvony also expressed concern with the regulation, especially as the reason to reject the recount request.

“A lot of advocates spend a lot of time and energy on these local bond questions,” Jackvony said. “They may not have spent money but they certainly spent time and resources.”

The issue has never surfaced before, probably because there’s never been a recount request on a municipal ballot question in recent years, said Robert Rapoza, executive director for the state elections board.

The board avoided having to directly address the question of spending as it relates to recognized standing, since the 3.1% margin with which Middletown’s bond passed was just outside the 2% limit for a recount. But Jackvony and DiSimone both expressed interest in changing the regulations.

“I think it should be repealed,” Macleod-Pfeiffer said.

Terri Flynn, a former Middletown Town Council member and member of Middletown Concerned Neighbors, took a more matter-of-fact tone.

“It’s in the statute,” she said in an interview after the meeting. “This is no surprise.”

Flynn ran unsuccessfully as the Republican nominee for the 1st Congressional District race.

But letting anyone ask for a recount could also cause problems, said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island.

“Elections have to have finality and that is incredibly important in a democracy,” Marion said. “The line needs to be drawn somewhere.”

However, Marion also acknowledged the problem of imposing the same spending requirements for statewide and municipal ballot questions.

“There are lots of policies that don’t pay attention to scale well, and this is one of them,” he said. “It’s a pittance to spend $5,000 on a statewide referenda but it’s quite a lot in some communities.”


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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.