As Americans celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act Thursday, Governor Gina Raimondo and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea observed the historic Act’s passing in their own way – by signing into law legislation that will update Rhode Island’s voting equipment for the first time in 20 years.
Bills S999 and H6312, sponsored by Senator Cynthia Coyne (District 32) and Representative Kathleen Fogarty (District 35), gives the Secretary of State the power to purchase new voting equipment, a duty that was formerly carried out by the Board of Elections.
“Back in 1997, when the last purchasing bill was done, it was set up so that it would revert over to the Board of Elections,” Secretary Gorbea explained. “So, for the last 17 years that’s where it had rested, and the legislature, in this past session, saw fit to turn that around. Now, of course, the Board of Elections is an instrumental part of this, and is working with us on this process.”
She added that voting equipment is part of a democracy’s infrastructure, and that citizens in a democracy depend on that equipment to “deliver fair, fast, and accurate elections.”
Gorbea has ordered the creation of a Voting Equipment Task Force, to inform the Department of State’s process of researching and buying new equipment, which has not been updated since 1997. John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, is a member of the task force, said the Board of Elections was not moving into the 21st century fast enough when it came to voting infrastructure, so the new legislation is a good way to move forward, even though it may be less transparent.
“The Board of Elections process could have been more transparent, because in the end the Board would have to vote in a public session on the purchase of the new machines, and now the Secretary can make the decision. The Secretary is not a board that has to have a public session,” he said. “But, fortunately, the Secretary convened a task force, to give input, and it’s a very expansive task force that brings in a lot of different people in the community. So, I think she is being as transparent as she can be, given the circumstances.”
Marion also said that the task force will be looking at what other states have done to influence how they will go about acquiring new equipment. Common Cause as a whole, he said, is also interested in making voting more accessible to Rhode Islanders. Senator Coyne shared that sentiment.
“The signing of this legislation is crucial to not only ensuring our elections are fair and accurate, but also to bringing the state’s voting machines into the 21st century,” she said. “In addition, modern equipment will make the voting process easier for Rhode Islanders, which will hopefully result in more people becoming involved in the democratic process.”
Governor Raimondo added that the main goal is to ensure that government works for everybody.
“This is a bill that I supported. I think the Secretary of State will do a good job. It will be efficient, and as I mentioned in my comments, really performance based. We want to make government effective and efficient, and the best use of tax dollars, and I think this does that,” she said.
An interesting side note about this bill that was mentioned at the signing is the fact that all the main stakeholders in its passage are women. Representative Fogarty, of South Kingstown, said that this proves that women create good legislation, which leads to good government.
“It was not something that was planned,” Gorbea said on the subject. “It was just something that happened organically, and I was pleased to see it happen.”