Board seeks delay, mail ballots for presidential primary

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Following the call from the State Board of Elections to postpone the April 28 presidential preference primary to June 2, Dottie McCarthy is breathing easier – although the challenge ahead is daunting.

The April 28 date is set by law and to change would require the governor to issue an executive order to override the law. That hadn’t occurred as of Wednesday afternoon.

“As we’ve seen, this is a quickly evolving situation. The Rhode Island primary is still more than a month away, and the Governor’s top priority is protecting the immediate public health and safety of Rhode Islanders. She is open to the idea of moving the election date and will rely on guidance from public health and election officials to inform that decision,” Josh Block, the governor’s spokesperson, said in an email.

In response to efforts to control the coronavirus, the Board of Elections would mail primary ballots. While this will eliminate the congregation of people at the polls, voting isn’t going to be as simple as walking into the polls, giving your identification and picking up a ballot.

Rather, it will involve a back-and-forth process that starts with a request for a mail ballot application that McCarthy said the Secretary of State would mail to all 62,000 registered Warwick voters. The application requests unaffiliated voters to designate whether they want to vote in the Democratic or the Republican primary. Those applications are mailed back in a postage paid envelope to the state Board of Elections.

From there they will go back to the cities and towns for verification before issuance of a ballot – either Democratic or Republican – that will be mailed by the Secretary of State. As the emphasis is on reducing the congregation of people, McCarthy expects the applications will either be faxed or digitally transmitted to the local boards.

Once an application is approved, a ballot will be mailed to the voter to be returned to the State Board of Elections where they will be machine counted.

Suspecting the state board would favor a mail ballot, McCarthy said Tuesday, “It’s not going to be easy but it’s got to get done.” Following the decision to move the primary to June 2, she said, “it’s a good thing.” She is hopeful ballot applications will go in the mail next week. She notes that some voters don’t like mail ballots because they suspect their votes won’t be counted.

McCarthy said there was a time when mail ballots were only taken into consideration in tight races. That’s not the case now, she said. They will be counted.

Going to a mail ballot eliminates the need and the expense of staffing nine polling places and 99 poll workers. McCarthy anticipates there will be a single “super” polling place for those who had failed to get a mail ballot or may have lost it.

On the other end, in terms of mailing forms and counting ballots, this primary promises to be more intense for the local board. In the last presidential primary in 2016, a total of 16,772 registered Warwick voters cast ballots.

“We’re willing to do whatever it takes to get through this,” she said.

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