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Early voting rates drop sharply from 2020 in Rhode Island, beyond

Secretary of State Gorbea aims to promote early voting in post-pandemic landscape

<p>Wendy Schiller, professor of political science and international and public affairs, said that while Democrats have been more likely to request mail-in ballots, Republicans have returned them at a higher rate.</p>

Wendy Schiller, professor of political science and international and public affairs, said that while Democrats have been more likely to request mail-in ballots, Republicans have returned them at a higher rate.

In only the second national election cycle in which Rhode Island has allowed early voting, early turnout has sharply decreased in comparison to the 2020 elections, according to data from Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea.

In 36 states more than a week before Election Day, early voting in the 2022 midterms had already outpaced early voting in the 2018 midterms — when turnout is traditionally lower than in presidential election cycles.

This year, the Ocean State’s early voting opened Oct. 19: In the first five days, 13,882 people voted in person, and the Rhode Island Board of Elections marked 6,799 mail-in ballots as received, Gorbea said in an interview with The Herald. 

At the same point in 2020, 40,511 in-person votes had been cast and 45,506 mail-in ballots had been received, Gorbea said. With a week to go before the election, total turnout in Rhode Island stands at 6.9%, according to the Rhode Island Voter Turnout Tracker.

Gorbea cited the different public health environment and political climate surrounding a non-presidential election as key contributors to the notable decrease.

Rhode Island voters were “looking for alternative means (to in-person voting) during the pandemic,” Gorbea said.

Trends favor Republicans

Wendy Schiller, professor of political science and director of the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy, noted that so far, Republicans seem to be carving into Democrats’ mail-in and early voting advantage from 2020. 

“What we’re seeing this year is that the request rate for mail-in ballots is higher among Democrats, but the return rate is higher among Republicans,” she said. “Republicans seem to be voting early at … slightly higher numbers than in 2020 and 2018.”

Despite lower overall early turnout rates as compared to 2020, the uptick in Republican voters casting their ballots early likely means that Republicans will achieve their expected strong performance this year, Schiller said. She added that Democrats cannot bank on the assumption of an advantage in early voting — even if that assumption has held true in prior years.

“Democrats rely on a broader, more varied socioeconomic, racial, ethnic and gender-identifying coalition,” Schiller said. Compared to Republicans, that coalition does not turn out at the same rate on Election Day, she noted. “If those people are not voting early, … the Democrats are facing some significant hurdles.”

When Republicans are “keeping pace with the Democrats” in early voting and a majority “of people who vote on Election Day are Republican, Republicans are going to win every time,” Schiller said.

Schiller also noted that in Rhode Island, early turnout is particularly low considering the comparatively high proportion of Rhode Island residents over the age of 65, a demographic that disproportionately votes early. 

She added that North and South Kingstown have a greater early turnout than Providence’s turnout — which reveals that Providence has a “really low turnout given it’s the capital city and (has) really a high population.” 

Higher turnout in North and South Kingstown likely stems from the “hot Congressional seat race” between Democrat Seth Magaziner and Republican Allan Fung for the state’s 2nd Congressional District, Schiller said. That disparity underscores what Schiller said is a “devastating” problem for Rhode Island Democrats: an uncontested mayoral race in Providence, which will make turning out voters harder. 

A lack of a competitive mayoral race is “not only just not a lot of people voting — that’s momentum, that’s energy (and) that’s engagement,” she said. “I happen to live in a district where there is literally no challenger for my state (representative), no challenger for my state senator, no challenger for my town councilperson, a nominal challenge for my congressperson and no challenge for my mayor.” 

“You're relying on civic duty for people to vote,” she added. “It's a very hard sell.”

Early voting gets an extended look

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Early voting is in its infancy in the Ocean State: First embraced as a necessary measure to ensure voting could continue during the pandemic, expanded early access has stuck around past the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rhode Islanders can now vote in-person as early as 20 days prior to the election, a change that traces back to the Let Rhode Island Vote Act, which expanded early voting, allowed online mail-in ballot applications, ensured that every community has access to a dropbox and created a multilingual voter information hotline, The Herald previously reported. The act came on the heels of the work of activists, such as those leading the Let Rhode Island Vote campaign, and state officials such as Gorbea.  

The act ensures “that the term ‘early voting’ is clear in the law,” Gorbea said. Prior to its passage, the law referred to early ballots as “emergency mail ballots,” implying that voters needed to be in a state of crisis to use them.

“There’s no emergency,” she added. Maybe “they just can’t go that day. That should be enough.” 

The act also eliminated the requirement for witnesses or notary signatures on mail ballots, a potential hurdle for voters, Gorbea said.  

Gorbea said she has prioritized expanding voting rights access as secretary of state: Over nearly eight years in the position, it has been her “joy to be able to undo many of the barriers that came with voting by mail or voting early.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Elections Performance Index, which ranks each state by its “election administration policy and performance,” ranked Rhode Island eighth in the nation for best election performance in the 2020 election. In comparison, Rhode Island was ranked 29th in the 2016 election.

Room for improvement

Steve Pokorny, former civic engagement leader at Brown’s Swearer Center for Public Service, said he believes the pandemic raised awareness about the need for greater voter accessibility but emphasized that work remains.

“The reality is absentee voting is a little more complicated because there’s multiple steps: You have to be registered (and) you have to request your ballot early,” he said. “Early in-person voting is a little bit simpler … I know they reduced some barriers. I’d love to see it even simpler, like (adding) online absentee ballot registration.” 

To Gorbea, making early voting accessible is a particularly important way to address inequities in the process.

“These very strict voting timelines have the effect of basically keeping working people out of being able to vote,” she said. “At one point, when universal suffrage was not the law of the land, you could have just this one day that white men of means would be able to exercise the right to vote.”

“Once you open access to the ballot box by making greater numbers of people eligible to vote, you then need to change the (mechanics of voting) to make sure that those people actually can exercise the right to vote,” she added.

Despite the state’s efforts to expand accessibility, this cycle’s decrease in early voter engagement has raised concerns for Gorbea.

“People still are not aware of all of the ways in which they can vote,” she said. They also do not know that early voting has extended past the pandemic — leading her to prioritize raising awareness of early voting this election cycle. 

Still, Gorbea said she views the current utilization of early voting as “encouraging” despite the low numbers.

Schiller added that the “rosier picture” of early voting for Democrats is that “there’s no COVID fear and people like the act of voting in person.”

Gorbea noted that while this year’s election may seem inconsequential compared to a presidential election, “this is a really important election.”

“There’s a lot of money on the table from federal funding coming through, and who’s in the governor’s office has a big impact on people’s lives,” Gorbea said. “I know that it might seem inconsequential, like, ‘It’s only me, it’s only one vote.’ But it is the collective sum of all of those ballots, of all those votes, that changes history.” 



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