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Improved Voting in Rhode Island

Damon L. Daniels

Election officials in Rhode Island are swiftly moving about the business of pro-voter reform.

On April 14, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea held a press conference to introduce a legislative package that is being called the Voting and Elections Modernization Act of 2015. The range of affirmative changes to the state’s current elections system is expansive. First, this package includes a joint resolution to amend the states constitution’s voter registration residency requirement in a manner that will open up the opportunity for introducing Same-Day Registration (SDR) legislation. Additionally, a set of companion bills call for implementation of online voter registration, early in-person voting, as well as language that will allow Rhode Island to join the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), which will allow more accurate voter‑registration record‑checking with states that are also members.

Details within this Act include:

  • Joint Resolution H 6027 calls that the amount of days by which a resident must be registered to vote prior to Election Day become reduced from thirty days to any time period that precedes the time of voting. If passed, this change provides space to not only introduce SDR legislation on Election Day, but potentially during the in‑person Early Voting period also.
  • Important components of companion bills H 6051 and S0821 include:
    • Online Voter Registration: In addition to allowing eligible voters to register at any time of day, these bills confer authority to the Secretary of State to cross‑reference voter records submitted in Rhode Island with available federal, state, municipal and/or quasi‑public databases. ERIC, which has been endorsed by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, is one example of  a system that facilitates the maintenance of accurate voter registration lists, by providing to participating states information concerning voters who have moved, passed away, have changed their names, and also, eligible unregistered voters.
    • Early In‑Person Voting: A staggered implementation process will allow for early voting at designated voting locations beginning 28 days prior to Election Day. Upon implementation in 2016, early voting will only take place on Monday through Friday; in 2018, early voting expands to two Saturdays and two Sundays before Election Day, and then to three Saturdays and Sundays by 2020.

As states across the country continue to wrestle between expanding and preserving voting provisions versus rolling them back, Secretary Gorbea’s actions are no small matter. According to data from the U.S. Elections Project, in 2014 Rhode Island only turned out 42 percent of its voter-eligible population, ranking 19th nationally. The passage of each of the reforms that Secretary Gorbea proposes has the potential to catapult the state’s voter participation numbers.

Additionally, the developments that take place regarding this package of legislation may provide a blueprint for other states to follow. Secretary Gorbea’s focus on online voter registration and joining ERIC before implementing SDR point to the technological foundations that will help address a number of the questions regarding maintaining accurate voter rolls that typically arise in conversations SDR is concerned. As a result, once Rhode Island’s constitutional residency requirement is ratified, SDR will make for a much easier sell. Lastly, the enactment of early voting opens the ideal possibility of it and SDR being offered together, which will further amplify voter registration and turnout.