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Rhode Island aims to avoid polling station issues for 2020

In last presidential primary, only a third of the state’s 419 polling stations were opened

After the 2016 Rhode Island presidential primary left some voters confused about which polling locations were open, the location and number of polling stations for this April’s primary remain in question.

“We’re still formulating a plan,” said Steven Taylor, special projects coordinator for the Rhode Island Board of Elections. “We’re looking to make sure that they don’t have an excess of polling stations in one area, and that polling locations are evenly spread out throughout the community.”

In 2016, only one third of the state’s 419 polling stations opened for the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries, The Herald previously reported. “Nobody in my neighborhood knew where to vote,” Hillary Salmon, a Rhode Island resident, told The Herald four years ago. Salmon spent over an hour visiting polling stations before finding the correct one.

When asked last week by The Herald about issues with 2016 polling stations, Providence Chief of Communications and Senior Advisor to the Mayor Emily Crowell contended that the Board of Canvassers notified 2016 voters of their updated polling locations “any time there were changes” and put up signs to redirect voters to open polling locations.

This year, Rhode Islanders will head to the polls April 28; the Democratic and Republican primaries are always held on the same day in the Ocean State. The Board of Canvassers will choose polling locations from 421 options and submit their proposals to the Rhode Island Board of Elections, said Jennifer Regan, the planning and programming specialist on the Rhode Island Board of Elections. If approved, the Board of Elections will supply each polling station with voting machines, check-in stations and other necessary materials, Taylor said.

But deciding which polling stations to open is far more difficult than coming up with a number. For one thing, while schools are often used as polling places, Taylor noted that “a lot of schools won’t even let (The Board of Canvassers) use the space if the schools are open and in session.” Because of this obstacle, the board is “almost forced to combine some of their polls.”

The budget also limits the number of polls that can be opened, and budgetary constraints are complicated further by the difficulty of predicting voter turnout. In 2004, for example, turnout dipped to six percent, yet it reached 32.5 percent in 2008.

Once the locations are confirmed, University student groups will inform students voting in Rhode Island about their closest polling locations. “Leading up to the election, we’re going to distribute informational material about where to vote using our Listserv, social media and by tabling in the Blue Room every Friday from noon to 5 p.m.,” said Jack Malamud ’22, president of Brown’s chapter of Every Vote Counts, a student-led organization focused on voter accessibility and turnout. They are not alone in this effort: Brown Democrats have also been preparing educational materials regarding polling places and information on voting, according to the group’s president, Zoë Mermelstein ’21.

Polling locations will be confirmed in the coming weeks, said Taylor. After March 11, voters will be able to find their closest polling location for April 28 on the Secretary of State’s website.

“We’d love to see every single poll (location) opened,” Taylor added, but the issue of which and how many polling stations are opened is “not an easy decision.”


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