To deal with pandemic, Gorbea stresses mail ballots, early voting

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If the presidential preference primary was a scrimmage with a predicable outcome and the Sept. 8 state primary an intramural game, then the Nov. 3 general election is the Super Bowl for voting in the midst of a pandemic.

Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea is confident voters will come out the winners, although the measures taken with an increased emphasis on mail ballots and early voting is new to many. Gorbea broadcast that message Thursday as she addressed the Warwick Rotary Club in person at its luncheon meeting at Chelo’s Restaurant.

She disclosed that mail ballot applications would be mailed to all registered voters as they were for the June presidential primary. Applications should start arriving in the mail this week. They must be returned by Oct. 13 for a ballot to be sent.

In order for voters to receive a ballot, their signature on the application is compared to that on record with municipal boards of elections. A second level of security to ensure the validity of the voter is the oath envelope used for the return ballot. It too, requires a signature. If the signature matches what’s on record, the ballot – which has no identification to who is casting it – is then counted.

Long before COVID-19, Gorbea said “we knew it was going to be a challenging [election] year with all sorts of stress in place. And then you throw a pandemic on top of it all.”

She said the virus has caused government to rethink things and implement new procedures to make sure that in the end, “yes, every eligible voter can and does vote, but that we do so in a way that’s safe and secure for everyone.”

Early voting that has gone under the name of emergency voting and mail ballots have always been options to voting at the polls on election day, but they haven’t promoted as they are being now. Early voting, which starts 20 days before the election on Oct. 14, can be done at the city or town hall of the municipality of residence. After verification of identity, as happens at the polls, a ballot is printed with the local races in the voter’s district as well as the state, congressional and national candidates. There are booths and the voter is handed a sanitized pen to mark the ballot. Poll workers wear masks and voters are appropriately distanced at the polls.

In the case of Warwick, Dottie McCarthy, director of the Board of Canvassers, used the City Council Chambers for early voting in primary. This gave her the space to distance people if a line developed. As it turned out, over the 20 days, 609 people cast early ballots and waits were not an issue.

Statewide, 6,967 of the 90,595 people who cast ballots in this month’s primary were early voters. A total of 38,553 cast mail ballots.

The June 2 primary was the first test of a universal mail ballot effort with more than 780,000 registered Rhode Islanders receiving an application.

“We tried to get everybody to vote by mail and that was hugely successful,” Gorbea said. “And what you saw, if you look at the numbers, and you can see this actually at … vote.ri.gov, which is the voter information center, in addition to having your own personal information there, you can actually also see things like data about elections in Rhode Island.”

She said the data shows 80 percent of those over the age of 65 voted by mail, “because they were trying to stay safe.” Postage paid return envelopes accompany the mail ballots, and in the case of the Nov. 3 election they must be mailed by Oct. 27. They can also be returned up to 8 p.m. on election night to the local board of elections or to a secure drop box that is being installed in every municipality.

Gorbea was asked about the timing of the mail and what happens to ballots received after the election.

“Rhode Island law requires that a mail ballot be received by 8 p.m. at the Board of Elections on Election Day. The post office is on track, like they scour all post offices, so that they make sure that they do that last shipment to the Board of Elections by 8 p.m. But it’s not unheard of to have something struggling. And you see from the June 2 primary, there were several thousand ballots that didn't make it by 8 p.m. on June 2.” She said those late ballots were scanned, but not counted.

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