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A Vote for Paper Ballots: How will the pandemic affect local elections?

The biggest story of the year was set to be the upcoming election cycle. From state government to local neighborhood elections, the coronavirus has upended all facets of democracy. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea has concerns about whether Rhode Island will be able to have the same number of polling places staffed by the same number of people this year, and her office is ramping up awareness for mail ballots.

“Rhode Island voters have always had the ability to vote by mail,” Secretary Gorbea told Motif in a phone interview. “Over time, that ability has changed.” In 2014 it changed to a no-excuse mail ballot. A voter just has to attest they cannot make it to the polling place on election day to receive one. 

“Some of this isn’t really all that different, we’re just highlighting awareness of it,” said Gorbea. Her office has proactively sent out mail ballot applications to registered voters. The process is the same with two exceptions. Included in the envelope was a pre-paid postage envelope and an alert to voters that the Board of Elections has waived the requirement of a notary and two witnesses on mail ballots.

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“I want to strongly encourage Rhode Islanders to use the mail ballot process for the June 2 presidential primary,” says Gorbea. Any mail ballot must be filled out and received by the local board of canvassers by 8pm on June 2, or it won’t be counted. Mail ballots postmarked June 2 do not count; they must have been physically delivered by that time.

The most frequent concerns she says her office gets is about nomination papers. Typically, any candidate for office, whether federal, state or local, needs to get a certain number of valid voter signatures certified to get on the ballot. Candidates have 10 days starting June 30 to obtain the needed signatures, and social distancing guidelines could make it difficult. “We’re looking at that issue,” says Gorbea. “And seeing whether we’re going to stay the course or to make an adjustment in the number of signatures like Massachusetts did.“

My office is also looking at the possibility of a technical solution,” says Gorbea. “Could we do something that provides for an online signature if you will, a virtual signature? But one that has the integrity of checks and balances so it’s not one person signing in 10 of their friends but rather individuals saying, ‘Yes, this is a person who should be a candidate.’” Her office will have a plan for nomination paper signatures by mid-May.

While it’s tough to predict what’s going to happen come the fall, “We have been investing steadily in our elections systems in my time as secretary of state,” says Gorbea, “and it gives us a lot more flexibility.” Her office can use federal government elections grants in a proactive way and has worked to increase access to the ballot box with online voter registration and automated voter registration. Polling places now have electronic poll books to make check-in at the ballot box quick and secure. They’ve worked to beef up cybersecurity in collaboration with all levels of government and gotten new voting machines with the only unhackable type of ballot: paper. 

While the secretary of state ensures the democratic process itself can run smoothly, candidates will have unique challenges this election cycle. COVID-19 and accompanying social distancing measures have stunted any springtime campaign plans. Talking to voters face-to-face and knocking on doors is impossible.

“I genuinely enjoy canvassing,” says John Donegan, city councilman for Ward 3, Cranston. “I make sure to walk every street, every year, and I’m glad I did it last year.” Donegan did a rare thing in Ocean State politics; he canvassed his ward in an off-election year. Connecting voters now will still be difficult, especially as their issues change.

“It will become much harder in person no matter what,” says Justine Caldwell, a representative running for re-election in House District 30. “Even if we’re allowed to meet voters one on one. We don’t know their medical history or preexisting conditions, they might not feel safe opening their doors.” Caldwell was originally planning to start canvassing in March, just after St. Patrick’s Day, but the pandemic required a change in plans.

 Much of her time now is spent helping her constituents through the crisis, filling out SBA loans for local small businesses and navigating the state’s unemployment system. “We are trying to think of creative ways to campaign,” she says. “The problem is, a lot of those creative ways don’t reach elderly voters, who show up to vote.” Caldwell has been working with her local town committee to make sure voters are kept informed and taught how to get and use a mail ballot.

“The problem is, how do you reach all these people that don’t even know you can help them?” asks Caldwell. Mailers are another key way for candidates to reach large numbers of voters quickly and get important information about voting deadlines to constituents. However, for new candidates or recent incumbents looking to clinch a re-elect, there’s always the money problem. 

“Mailers can be expensive,” says Donegan. Depending on the size of the area, they can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 to reach every voter. Candidates right now would rather see money go toward people in their community rather than campaigns. Even traditional campaign launches and announcements have to be dramatically re-imagined for the COVID-19 age. Cranston City Councilman Steve Stycos planned to launch his mayoral campaign from Pub on Park last month. The virus put the brakes on any kind of gathering, so in place of a traditional campaign launch, Stycos and his wife did an AMA on a Facebook Live video. Similarly, Caldwell has taken to connecting with voters over live video on Facebook.

Connecting with voters is more important than ever, especially at a time when the coronavirus prevents meeting them in person. “We’ve got to be the listening ears of the public,” says Alex Kithes, Woonsocket City Council. Kithes sees digital outreach as the way forward, and has focused on connecting with voters online. Now more than ever he’s concerned about worsening inequality in light of the pandemic. “I think the pandemic highlights a lot of the fundamental flaws in the design of our healthcare and housing systems,” he says. “We live in a very working class city; a lot of residents live paycheck to paycheck.” It’s not just about handling the current crisis; it’s also about redesigning our response to be prepared for future crises.

No matter how long it takes or what is decided, campaigning will go on. Like all other aspects of life, they will have to adjust in what the governor has called “the new normal.”

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