Trump and Biden aren’t the only names on R.I.’s primary ballot

RHODE ISLAND’S REGISTERED votes head to the polls Tuesday for the state’s presidential preference primary. / PBN FILE PHOTO

It’s hardly going to be a nail-biter. 

President Joe Biden and Donald Trump have already clinched the nominations for Democrat and Republican parties, respectively, having won enough delegates following the March 12 contests in four states.  

Yet Rhode Island voters still can have their say Tuesday in Rhode Island’s presidential preference primary, with multiple names to choose from on the state’s primary ballot, including the presidential hopefuls and the delegates who will make the nominations official at party national conventions this summer.  

The Democratic ballot offers up two candidates for president: Biden or U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota. Phillips ended his longshot bid for party nominee in March, more than a month after Rhode Island’s ballot lists were finalized, printed and mailed to overseas and absentee ballots.  

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Not to be discounted: the “uncommitted” option, which has been gaining popularity in states nationwide as a protest vote against Biden for offering aid to Israel in the ongoing war against Hamas terrorists in Gaza.  

Pro-Palestine activists organized a rally outside the Rhode Island Statehouse on March 30, urging voters to choose the uncommitted option to show support for a cease-fire and end of military aid to Israel. Providence City Councilman Miguel Sanchez, a vocal Palestine supporter whose outspoken stance cost him his job with the governor’s office, is among those who have already voted uncommitted, urging others to do the same on social media and in a letter in The Providence Journal. 

Rhode Island Democratic Party Chairwoman Liz Beretta-Perik did not respond to questions about the protest vote. However, the state appears to have Biden supporters aplenty in positions of prominence, judging from the 16 Biden-pledged delegate candidates vying to represent Rhode Island at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August.  

Rhode Island gets to send 30 delegates, plus two alternates, to the DNC. However, 16 of those seats are already taken, reserved for members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation, the governor, and members of the Democratic National Committee who live in Rhode Island, among others, according to the state party delegate selection plan. 

That leaves 14 elected delegate seats up for grabs, divided between the state’s two congressional districts. There are 11 contenders vying for seven seats in Congressional District 1, while District 2 voters have five candidates for the five open spots. 

Democratic delegate hopefuls include many familiar names in state and local politics. There are three mayors — Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera; Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien; and Providence Mayor Brett Smiley — plus two state senators: Sen. Sandra Cano of Pawtucket; and Senate Majority Leader Ryan Pearson of Cumberland.  

Other Democratic delegate candidates on the ballot include Tom Kane, chairman of the Cumberland Democratic Town Committee; William Foulkes, husband of 2022 gubernatorial candidate Helena Foulkes; Mary-Murphy Walsh, president of Young Democrats of Rhode Island; and Melissa Carden, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence. 

While difficult to compare interest among delegate candidates to past elections, the best frame of reference is the 2012 primary, when President Barack Obama ran for his second term, Beretta-Perik said in an email Monday. The 2012 primary saw 33 Rhode Island Democrats competing for the same 14 pledged delegate spots: double the number on the ballot this year. 

Beretta-Perik attributed this to Obama’s local organizing method, working with the Democratic National Committee to open a Rhode Island office to actively encourage delegate candidates. Biden’s team has not opened any offices in Rhode Island, though the Rhode Island Democratic Party has been “actively engaging” members to vote through social media and email, Beretta-Perik said. 

Especially because this year’s presidential preference primary is earlier than usual; a law passed in 2023 pushed up the 2024 contest from the fourth Tuesday in April to April 2 to avoid conflict with Passover. The change only applies to the 2024 primary. 

While voters will make their picks for delegates on Tuesday, the final selection of delegates won’t happen until several months later, when the state party committee holds its convention on June 9. At the time, elected party committee members will finalize the list of pledged delegates, based on results in the April 2 primary along with party rules that consider representation based on gender and minority status, and rankings in state and local politics. 

On the Republican side, it’s a little more complicated, in part because the 53 candidates vying to attend the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee in July include a mix of those pledged for Trump, along with supporters of former presidential candidate Nikki Haley. There are also four candidates running as “uncommitted” delegates. 

The state GOP can send 19 delegates — with 16 alternates —  to the national convention. Three of the delegates are automatically granted a spot based on their status in the party: National Committeeman Steve Frias, National Committeewoman Sue Cienki and state GOP Chairman Joe Powers. That leaves 16 delegate positions, plus 16 alternates, up to voters to decide, with delegates awarded proportionally to candidates that receive at least 10% of the vote, according to the state party’s delegate selection plan. 

With Haley still on the ballot, that means the GOP could end up sending some Haley-committed delegates to the RNC, though Powers thinks that it’s unlikely Haley will get enough votes to win any delegates. 

“She’ll get some votes, but right now, it’s really about Donald Trump,” Powers said in an interview on Friday. 

If Haley does win more than 10% of primary votes in Rhode Island, her awarded delegates will be released from voting for her after the first round of voting at the national convention in order to support someone else, according to state party rules. 

Powers hesitated to compare the number of delegate candidates to past presidential primaries given the aberrations of 2020 and 2016 — one marked by a pandemic and the prior by an unusually high number of candidates — but said he took phone calls daily from voters, many unaffiliated, about the election. 

“As polarizing as politics has become, I think this year there’s a lot more focus on it,” Powers said. 

Whether that translates to voters hitting the polls Tuesday, he was unsure.  

Those who do will have their pick from Trump, alongside former candidates Haley, Chris Christie, Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy, who all failed to notify the Rhode Island Department of State that they had dropped out of the race by the January deadline to finalize ballots. 

Republican ballots also include 25 Haley delegate candidates and 24 backing Trump. Notable Haley supporters include former state GOP Chairman Giovanni Cicione and Ken Naylor, the campaign manager for Republican 1st Congressional District candidate Gerry Leonard Jr. Among the Trump-pledged delegates are former state Rep. Justin Price, who took part in the Jan. 6 attacks on the Capitol and Rep. Sherry Roberts, who represents West Greenwich. 

Like Democrats, the state Republican party will finalize its picks for pledged and alternate delegates following the results Tuesday’s primary. 

Powers, who is one of three delegates granted an automatic trip to Milwaukee, wasn’t resting on his laurels despite not having to campaign for a spot at the convention. He stressed the importance of outreach to voters, though he acknowledged that the get-out-the-vote campaign would still go ignored by some. 

“We can only do so much,” Powers said. “We can’t be sitting at the baseboard of someone’s bed saying, ‘Get up, let’s go.’” 

As of 4:30 p.m. on Friday, March 29, a total of 11,813 voters had cast ballots, either by mail or at designated early voting polling places, according to the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s online turnout tracker. This represents 1.5% of registered voters. 

Early voting ended at 4 p.m. on Monday. 

In the June 2, 2020 presidential preference primary, 123,875 voters cast ballots – mostly by mail — representing 17.1% of registered voters, according to official election results.  

Polls open at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, except for the town of New Shoreham where polls open at noon. Voters can cast ballots or turn in their mail in ballots through 8 p.m. Designated polling places and sample ballots are available online.  

Results will be calculated by the Rhode Island Board of Elections, and posted online, once polls close Tuesday. 

As for any primary night watch parties, Powers said the Rhode Island GOP may hold an informal gathering at its Warwick headquarters. 

“I’ll be watching the TV, that’s for sure,” he said. 

The state Democratic Party will not have a watch party, Beretta-Perik said. 

Nancy Lavin is a staff writer for the Rhode Island Current.

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