[Edit: 5pm: This story has been updated with additional information and a statement from the Secretary of State.]
When Rhode Island Board of elections chose to open only 144 of the state’s 419 polling stations for the April 26 primary, some cried foul. The move was seen by some as an attempt to stifle voters who might turn out for Bernie Sanders instead of Hillary Clinton. (On the Republican side, a Donald Trump victory was never in question.) RI Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Platform Committee, was cast as a political insider working for the Clinton campaign, though all polling locations were and are determined by local municipalities and the RI Board of Elections.
With the release of a giant crop of leaked DNC emails from Wikileaks, Gorbea appears to be exonerated from the charge of electioneering. However, the emails do seem to indicate that operatives within the Democratic National Committee were interfering in the election on a national level, placing more than a thumb on the scales in Clinton’s favor, even as they attempted to manage the public’s perception of their interference. Favoring one candidate over another is a violation of DNC rules.
The Wikileak emails show that ahead of Bernie Sanders’ big win in the Rhode Island primary, highly placed operatives in the Democratic National Committee were worried about the optics of the RI Board of Election’s decision to not open more than a third of the polling places, mistakenly believing that Gorbea was the one who made the decision.
On April 25 DNC Deputy Communications Director Eric Walker wrote to his boss, Luis Miranda, “Bernie leads Hillary by 4 in the latest poll. If [Clinton] outperforms this polling, the Bernie camp will go nuts and allege misconduct. They’ll probably complain regardless, actually. We might want to get out in front of this one with an inquiry to [Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo], even though she’s one of ours.”
By “one of ours” let’s assume Walker simply meant, “a Democratic governor”.
The next day was April 26, the day of the actual primary. Having been informed by DNC Northeast Regional Political Director Erin Wilson that, “We’ve got a pretty close relationship with Nellie,” Walker suggested contacting Gorbea directly.
“Was thinking a letter so that if press asks us about it, we can show we are responsive and active,” wrote Walker, “If we’re crying foul in AZ, we might need to do the same – at least nominally – in RI so we don’t look like hypocrites.”
This prompted DNC National Political Director Raul Alvillar to write, “I am fine with that. Before we do that we should talk to [Gorbea] to get all of the details.”
Walker responded, “I would like to be on this call, but first, I don’t think we even need a statement. We just need something to cover ourselves.
“I think when we start getting inquiries, if we have a letter to the [Secretary of State] that we can point to, it will show that we are engaged and that we don’t just pipe up when it’s a Republican administration closing poll locations.
“We can make the point to reporters individually off the record that it’s not apples and oranges: Arizona more serious because the state was covered under [Voting Rights Act] and has had a history of problems – Rhode Island doesn’t have those same historical issues.”
The primary in Rhode Island was in full swing just before 1pm when Erin Wilson came back with more information. “[Pratt Wiley, DNC National Director of Voter Protection] and I were reminded that in RI, the Secretary of State doesn’t manage elections, but they’re run by the Board of Elections that are appointed by the Governor. Apparently the number of polling locations they’ve opened are consistent with the numbers opened in 2008 and 2012, and they’ve also increased the number of poll workers, ballots and booths to accommodate any unexpected surges. For example they’re telling us that they printed 300K ballots for an expected turnout of 180K. Again, these decisions are made by the Board of Elections.
“The Secretary has been traveling to polling locations all morning/afternoon and they haven’t seen any issues. Apparently the longest wait they’re seeing is 25 minutes.
“So, if we do write a letter, it would need to be to the Board of Elections. I’d be a little cautious about pulling the trigger on it too soon. Can we give some of this info on background to show we’ve made inquiries to the state if we start getting calls and then punt it back to RI?”
Eric Walker, now having been in contact with Gorbea, writes, “To be clear – no inquiries yet, but RNC will be pushing it.
“Pratt just swung by my desk – [Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea is] ready to go on record with these points defending their approach, which is good.
“I think that if DNC press office gets inquiries about hypocrisy between AZ / RI then we can direct them to RI [Secretary of State] comment, and explain on background that it’s not as dire as AZ and that RI doesn’t have the same VRA baggage.”
The final email on Wikileaks regarding the issue came from DNC National Political Director Raul Alvillar, who wrote, “Perfect. This is good.”
Of course, the entire issue of whether or not the Board of Elections declined to open more polling stations to favor Clinton in the primary went away when Sanders clobbered Clinton, taking 55 percent of the vote. This upset caught local machine Democrats completely off guard and surprised national pundits.
From reading the emails, it seems clear that Gorbea answered concerns from the DNC and coordinated a response to criticisms of the Board of Election’s decision as to the number of polls to open, but no evidence of outright collusion for the purpose of electioneering can be seen in them.
According to Nicole Lagace, Senior Advisor and Communications Director to the Secretary of State, “The DNC reached out to Secretary Gorbea on April 26 to inquire about the decreased number of polling locations in Rhode Island for the Presidential primary. We explained that we do not oversee polling locations and that was the end of that correspondence.”
[Andrew Stewart contributed to this reporting.]