Questions remain as Rhode Island lawmakers vote on easing voting rules

PROVIDENCE — Legislation to allow people who can already register to vote online to also apply for mail ballots online is headed to a House vote after winning party-line approval by a key committee on Tuesday night.

What could go wrong?

Nothing, say advocates of the Let RI Vote bill that passed the House elections committee on Tuesday.

They say the bill will make it easier for people to vote by making permanent the accommodations made during the pandemic so people did not have to stand in line at crowded polling places or hunt down people to act as witnesses to their signatures on absentee ballots.

Election 2022 Update: Gorbea and Foulkes exchange digs as campaign heats up

But some legislators – primarily but not exclusively Republicans – have raised concerns about the opportunities for fraud.

The skeptics also question why Rhode Island is one of only a handful of states with no rules on who can collect ballots from absentee voters, and how many they can collect, a practice critics describe as "ballot harvesting."

One of the last high-profile controversies centered on the 226 mail ballots collected and notarized in 2017 by a $15-an-hour campaign worker for the senator who has sponsored the Senate-passed version of the bill: Democrat Dawn Euer.

Last month: Senate approves bill to allow early voting, online applications for mail ballots

GOP says bill headed for RI Senate vote raises potential for ballot fraud

While her opponent raised concerns, the Rhode Island Board of Elections concluded that there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Among the concerns of "Let RI Vote" critics: removing witness and notary requirements will remove the paper trail that has enabled political opponents — and independent investigators — to probe "ballot harvesting" allegations, as The Journal did in-depth during the Cianci era.

This coupled with the secretary of state's earlier removal of birth dates from the voting records routinely provided The Journal in the past prevents journalists and other watchdogs from identifying people — living and dead — who are registered to vote in more than one state or community and, in some cases, and actually voted. (The Journal sued. As a concession, the secretary of state agreed to allow people to view — but not export — voter records on a state office computer.)

Rules on returning absentee ballots vary by state

The rules vary from state to state on who can collect ballots for someone else. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in some states the voter must return the ballot.

In 30 other states, "someone other than the voter is explicitly allowed to return a voted ballot on behalf of another voter."

But many of these states, including neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts, "limit this provision to a family member, household member or caregiver. Fifteen states allow a voter to designate someone — not necessarily a family member, household member or caregiver — to return their ballot for them."

Should civics be required in RI high school?: Students say, 'We can use this knowledge.'

Eight of these 30 states also limit how many ballots an authorized person can return. Four limit how long those ballots can remain in the authorized person’s possession before being returned.

"These limits are based on the concern that saving people the task of returning their ballot can bleed into encouraging them to vote a certain way,'' the state legislatures conference said in a report.

But others, "such as Rhode Island and Wyoming, do not explicitly specify who may or may not return a ballot on behalf of a voter,'' the group said.

Advocates here said there were no known problems to justify reforms to Rhode Island's ballot collection laws in the decades since the scandals of the Cianci era.

Board of Elections chats with The Providence Journal

In an hour-long Zoom meeting with The Journal, top Board of Elections staffers answered questions, and dispelled myths, about how elections officials match ballot signatures now.

As a starting point, they dispelled the widely held belief that Rhode Island has signature-matching machines.

"The machine has the capability to do automated signature verification. However that is not a capability that we have deployed," Miguel Nunez, the deputy director of elections, said.

Here are some other questions The Journal asked the board.

What does the machine do?

"It just makes it more efficient by actually snapping an image of the ballot so it can be reviewed on a computer work station"

So the popular belief is wrong: there are no signature matching machines?

"Correct. It is all still done by human beings."

If you have online registration now ... and Let RI Vote allows online applications for mail ballot, what do you match the signature against?

If you mail in a mail ballot application today, "the local board of canvassers will compare your signature to your voter registration record, and authorize the secretary of state to send you a ballot.

"You get that ballot in the mail. You complete it. You sign the envelope that it is inserted into it and you will mail that back to our office here.

"We will take that ballot, process it through our high-speed sorting equipment, which will open the mailing envelope, extract your signature envelope from inside that contains your actual ballot. ... The machine will snap a photo of the front of that envelope.

"Then we have ... pairs of election officials who ... will actually compare the signature on that envelope that contains the ballot ... to the signature in the Central Voter Registration System."

Political Scene: Which RI politicians are willing to make their tax returns public? Any surprises?

What if there is no signature in the system because the voter has registered online, using for identification a driver's license or state ID card number obtained from the DMV? Who is responsible for getting that signature from the DMV?

A spokesman for the secretary of state's office told The Journal: "The Board of Elections can explain their procedures for signature comparison."

Board of Elections staff said: Local boards of canvassers can push a button in the Central Voter Registration System to extract that signature.

When asked how that works, Cranston registrar Nick Lima said his staff would notify the secretary of state, and "the secretary of state would reach out to the DMV."

Late Tuesday Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea's spokesman, Johnathan Berard, said: "The online interface maintained by our office pings the DMV for the signature required to register to vote."

Asked who or what activates this action, he said:

"When a voter is registering to vote online, the signature associated with their driver’s license or state ID number is retrieved from the DMV database by the online voter registration system automatically. It is then transferred to the local boards of canvassers to process the voter registration."

In Rhode Island, there are many people with driver's licenses who are not U.S. citizens.

Asked what the safeguard would be against noncitizens voting, the Board of Elections said: "They are not U.S. citizens; they are not eligible to vote. They would in fact be violating the law by doing so."

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Let RI Vote bill heads for next key vote as questions remain