Secretary of state proposes early voting in Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The demand for mail ballots in the recent election shows the need to allow for early voting, Rhode Island’s secretary of state said Wednesday.

Democrat Nellie Gorbea said about 17,000 traditional mail ballots were returned for the Nov. 6 general election, up from about 11,500 in 2014. She said nearly 11,000 “emergency mail ballots” were returned within 20 days of the election, up from nearly 5,000 in 2014.

Gorbea, who was elected to a second four-year term, said she’ll once again push for a bill to allow early voting at city and town halls within 20 days of an election. The legislative session begins in January.

Gorbea said it would make voting more convenient, secure and eliminate mistakes that disqualify some mail ballots. Voters would cast ballots in person just as they would if it were Election Day.

“The increases we’re seeing in mail ballots and emergency mail ballots point to the fact that Rhode Islanders want to vote on days other than Election Day and feel comfortable doing so,” Gorbea said. “And our system should make it easier for them to exercise their right to vote.”

A bill to allow early voting has stalled for five consecutive years. Some municipalities were concerned about costs and some lawmakers worried about changing the traditional methods.

Passage of this legislation continues to be a priority for Common Cause Rhode Island, a government group. John Marion, the executive director, said Wednesday he’s hopeful.

“Some of the political obstacles are fading because both voters and politicians are understanding the value of early voting,” he said.

Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said he looks forward to working with Gorbea on this proposal in the upcoming session and her legislation will be carefully reviewed by the Judiciary Committee. Democratic Senate President Dominick Ruggerio is “keeping an open mind” about early voting, his spokesman said Wednesday.

Because the early voting proposal provides for weekend voting, the board of canvassers in Westerly opened on the weekend before this year’s general election so voters could use emergency mail ballots.

Nearly 300 mail ballots were cast that weekend, Cathy Brayman, the deputy town clerk, said Wednesday. Brayman said she’s strongly in favor of early voting and people loved being able to vote on the weekend.

Gorbea also wants to examine giving people more time to register to vote before elections, which would require a constitutional change. The current deadline is 30 days before a primary or election. Gorbea said that’s based on paper processes of a different era, which doesn’t make sense in a digital age. She plans to form a working group to look for other ways to further modernize the state’s election laws.