In Rhode Island, once a mail ballot is sealed and signed by either two witnesses or a notary public, anyone can pick it up and return it to the local elections office.
That could be a sibling, a spouse, a child, or a campaign worker or volunteer because the state law governing mail ballots, or absentee ballots, doesn’t specify who can return sealed ballots. Other states, such as New Hampshire and Massachusetts, restrict who can deliver that ballot to immediate family members and caregivers.
Is Rhode Island too permissive, does its flexibility invite problems?
Overall, mail ballot use skyrocketed in 2016. The number of mail-in votes cast in the presidential race of the Nov. 8 general election reached 40,260, or 8.7 percent of those cast, according to the R.I. Board of Elections.
In 2012, the number of absentee ballots was 26,030, or 5.8 percent of those cast.
The General Assembly in 2011 amended state law governing mail-in ballots, allowing people to cast them without having to list a reason or excuse for not being able to vote during set polling hours, according to John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island.
The change has allowed campaigns to emphasize mail ballots as a method to turn out voters. When a voter requests a mail ballot, that information is public. Campaigns can find out who has requested the ballots, and volunteers or workers can act as witnesses.
Mail-ballot voters tipped the race in favor of Democratic House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello in Cranston’s District 15. He defeated Steven Frias, a Republican contender, by a vote of 3,611 to 3,526, including the mail-in votes, according to the unofficial results.
On Nov. 15, the chairman of the state GOP challenged the integrity of the race results, and asked for an investigation.
After an investigation by R.I. State Police found nothing amiss, Frias on Nov. 29 conceded the race, and would not fight certification efforts.
But he said he continues to have concerns about the process used in Rhode Island for mail ballots, including the involvement of campaign volunteers or workers in their collection. He said his campaign had not collected ballots.
“There’s always going to be the possibility that a campaign volunteer or worker could try to improperly influence or interfere with a voter,” he said.
Common Cause supports efforts to restrict who can deliver a sealed, completed mail ballot on behalf of the voter, limiting that function to family members or caregivers.
“Having campaign volunteers, or even campaign workers, handle the ballots just doesn’t seem like a good idea,” Marion said. •