Our neighbors to the north in Massachusetts have now successfully completed their first election with early voting. With over a million Massachusetts voters taking advantage of early voting, nearly a third of all votes cast, Massachusetts has provided a regional case study on how to successfully enact this commonsense reform to make voting easier. It is time for Rhode Island to take a long, hard look at the reasons we aren’t supporting this convenient option for Rhode Island citizens.
Already, 34 states and the District of Columbia have early voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (http://www.ncsl.org/research/
We had but a few voting issues here in 2016, a handful of voting places had long wait times in both the primaries and election day. Early voting offers a way of easing traffic and allowing for our vote counting machines additional time between ballots cast. Early voting allows for better prediction of where additional voting machines may be required throughout the state as well, and over time, can serve as the basis for predictive modeling for resource allocation.
Despite the calls for early voting from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, Common Cause RI, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, and many Democrats in Rhode Island and across the country, the RI House and Senate versions of the Early Voting bills have been “held for further study” since January and March of 2016 respectively. In the 2016 legislative session, they never made it out of committee.
According to testimony in the RI House from Gorbea, the current version of the House Bill “allows people to vote over an extended time period using methods that are already in place, [and] the changes to the actual processes are minimal.” So why is this legislation not moving forward in Rhode Island?
The hurdles to early voting aren’t practical, they’re of political will.
Rhode Island remains one of the most regressive states for ballot access with our strict voter ID law. This law mimics Republican-led state legislation intended to disenfranchise people of color.
Here in Rhode Island, House Speaker Mattiello has embraced these voter ID laws, which have been pushed in an effort to curtail a problem that simply doesn’t exist: in-person voter fraud. Here in Rhode Island, there was only one case of voter fraud worth investigating, someone who may have voted twice in the presidential election (as well as a State Police investigation against Speaker Mattiello on a complaint about mail ballot tampering that was later dropped). Despite the lack of a meaningful impetus, the RI General Assembly has provided a flawed voter ID solution that disenfranchises voters and provides a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Somehow, these oppressive rules have found allies in Rhode Island’s leadership.
Ballot access is something that a state like Rhode Island should cherish and encourage. Founded by Roger Williams for the purpose of religious freedom, our state should continue that tradition as best we can. Rhode Islanders are best represented when all are able to take advantage of their right to vote.
The blocking of Early Voting and enactment of Voter ID laws in Rhode Island point to a troubling motivation. Voter ID laws have regularly been used to disenfranchise poor and minority voters. Likewise, most note that Early Voting tends to increase poll accessibility for those same communities. What people can’t make it to the polls on Election Day? People who can’t afford to make it to the polls because they are working or caring for loved ones or cannot arrange for transportation. Early voting increases the opportunity for people to find time to vote, on days off or when transportation may be more readily available to them. Providing wider accessibility to our election system should be applauded by all, not manipulated to the benefit of the few.
It is not difficult to enact early voting. It simply requires leadership. In the General Assembly, that leadership has been sadly lacking. That is unacceptable. We must move forwards to enact early voting. We should put our Democratic values into action. The delay has gone on long enough. Rhode Islanders deserve to have early voting enacted now.