The House floor saw heated debate Wednesday as representatives discussed the implications of bill H6051, which would allow electronic voter registration. The action would make Rhode Island the 28th state to do so, following a trend that has saved other states money and time, as well as helped to clear voter rolls during elections. Supporters of the bill said that it would bring Rhode Island into the 21st century. Opponents were not as kind.
“I don’t want everyone to vote that’s not well informed on the issues,” said House Minority Whip Joseph Trillo (R- District 24). “So I don’t want to register everybody just because I want bodies to go into a voting booth and vote. You Democrats don’t care about that! You’ll take them by the thousands! As long as they can breathe, walk, take them into the voting booth!”
“An uninformed voter is a manipulated voter,” he added.
Trillo’s concern, as did many others, stemmed from possible voter fraud using an electronic system. The legislation would operate using one’s existing driver’s license or state identification card, which already has their signature on it. Those eligible would be able to register because their signature would already be on file at the DMV, making it easier for them to be verified by the Secretary of State. Their local board of canvassers would then notify them that their registration has been confirmed.
Language in the bill that states that the Secretary of State’s office “may” verify a registrant sparked the debate. Many opponents believed that the Secretary’s office should be required to verify everyone who registers to vote, but those who supported the bill stated that not only is it an undue burden on administration, it is unnecessary because of the cross-referencing done by the board of canvassers. Representative Stephen Ucci (D- District 42), stated that the verification is normally only used to analyze voter trends that may be suspicious.
“You have to look into this in the totality of our voting system,” Ucci said. “Let’s join those other 20 something states that have done this, and get ourselves on the right path to getting people to vote.”
“A person is still required to have a state license or state ID, which you don’t need in person,” Representative Aaron Regunberg (D- District 4), who is the main sponsor of the bill, added. “The system has existed in dozens of states, registering millions of voters, and there has not been a recorded successful incident of fraud.”
Other key points in the debate included accessibility to registration, as well as modernizing Rhode Island’s system. Many spoke about how there are people who do not have the time to go to their town or city hall to register, because they are working during office hours. Going online to vote, rather than paying for an envelope and stamp to mail in registration, is free, making the process more accessible to low-income voters. Putting the process online and making it easier would, in their eyes, serve as an incentive to both register and vote.
Regunberg’s legislation also includes a provision that would enroll Rhode Island in agreements with other states that would allow them to reference data in order to update voter rolls, either registering people who have recently moved into the state, or expunging those who have moved or died.
The bill passed with overwhelming support, in a 63-10 vote. In an interview after the meeting, Regunberg said he was very excited that the legislation passed, especially because it will be one of many solutions to get people out and voting.
“There’s a whole bunch of things, I think this is one part of it that will absolutely, for a generation of people who are much more used to doing these things online, who don’t really use snail mail, who don’t really understand those more antiquated systems. I think it will make it more accessible. It makes it more convenient for everyone,” he said.
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who helped to craft the bill, provided a statement about its passage as well:
“This legislation will make it easier for citizens to register to vote and update their voter information, and it will improve the accuracy and integrity of Rhode Island’s voter rolls. I thank Speaker Mattiello, the bill’s sponsors, Representatives Regunberg, Handy, Keable, Blazejewski, and Barros; and the entire House of Representatives for their support of this legislation.”
John Marion, the Executive Director of Common Cause RI, was also involved in the bill’s drafting process, and stated that this is a huge step forward for Rhode Island, not only in terms of modernization, but also in terms of system management, and accessibility. As far as systems management is concerned, the electronic process makes everyone’s jobs easier and more cost effective. In some states, the cost per voter has gone down to less than ten cents per registration. But to Marion, those benefits are only secondary.
“The real benefit is to the voters. This is going to allow people easier access to registration, and not just new registrants, but this has a lot to do with people who are moving and don’t want to change their registration,” he said. “Because this is not replacing the current paper based system, it’s a complement to that, it’s going to capture more people, ultimately.”