Scott MacKay Commentary: RI Should Adopt Early Voting And Be Thankful For No Meaningful Voter Fraud

Dec 2, 2016

The campaigns are over, but the debates about voting rage on. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says it’s time for Rhode Island to consider some election changes.

The decisions have been made, but that hasn’t stopped the politicians, consultants and wonks from endlessly replaying the campaign.

President-elect Donald Trump, without a shred of evidence, claims that three million fraudulent votes for his opponent, Hillary Clinton, kept him from winning the popular vote. Democrats counter that voter manipulation and suppression tactics by Republicans in red states tamped down Clinton votes among the young and minorities.

The bitterness of the presidential campaign lingers, with some liberals protesting Trump’s electoral college-fueled victory. Even the political pros keep swinging; a post-election confab at Harvard University last week erupted into a shouting match between Trump and Clinton campaign operatives.

Rhode Islanders have been shielded from the worst of the national jousts over voting. Our election day went fairly well. There were some lines at polling venues, but some of this was due to the symptom of a healthy democracy – high turnout, which exceeded the 2012 presidential turnout.

There has been little talk of fraud in the Ocean State. According to Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, there has been only one case worth investigating, that of a Portsmouth voter who may have voted twice in the presidential tilt. The town canvassing board has turned the probe over to the Portsmouth police. In Cranston,  Republican Steve Frias complained about mail-ballot tampering in his close loss to House Speaker Nick Mattiello, a Democrat. But state police did not turn up evidence of wrongdoing.

While it’s  great that a state with a history of chicanery held an honest plebiscite, that doesn’t mean we can’t improve things to make this bedrock duty of  citizenship easier and more convenient. One smart change would be to put into effect early voting. This would make life more palatable for both voters and poll workers. Early voting was successful in Massachusetts, where about one of three votes in the general election were cast early.

Gorbea says she will once again ask the General Assembly that convenes in January to approve early voting, including allowing voting on the weekend before the Tuesday election. She envisions allowing voters a four-hour early voting window on the Saturday and Sunday before the Tuesday election, as well as weekdays before the election.. Common Cause of Rhode Island also supports this initiative, says John Marion, the group’s executive director.

Gorbea also said she will take a close look at whether the state’s voter identification law should be scuttled or changed. An opponent of voter id when she ran for the office, Gorbea says she is consulting with a group of Harvard and MIT researchers to determine the impact on elections of the id requirement. She said she wants to see data before making any recommendations. If the study shows that the id rules don’t dilute turnout, Gorbea says she is willing to ``rethink’’ her opposition.

Voter id laws have been criticized, mostly by Democrats, in other states, for making it more difficult to cast a ballot. Gorbea says the test is to ensure integrity while also pushing for the highest and most diverse turnout possible. ``It’s harder to rig an election if you have a large number of voters.’’

Another challenge is to make sure the voter rolls are as accurate as they can be without harming any citizen’s right to vote.  This means wiping the rolls clean of dead people. Gorbea says there has been progress on his front by using a national data base and checking with social security death records. She estimates that only about 1,500 names of the deceased are on the state’s roster of about 781,000 registered voters.

When Trump made his fraud accusations to his 16 million Twitter followers, he cited ``serious voter fraud’’ in Virginia, California and New Hampshire. But no one in New Hampshire – in the hierarchy of either the Democratic or Republican parties – seemed to have any idea what he was talking about, according to the Boston Globe.

Marion, the Common Cause watchdog, says that fraud by way of voter impersonation is largely a myth.

In Rhode Island’s long and florid history, electoral corruption has tended to involve absentee ballots or voter registration. That’s what happened sixty years ago in the governor’s election between Republican Chris Del Sesto and Democratic incumbent Dennis J. Roberts.

Del Sesto won by 427 votes out of nearly 390,000 cast. But Roberts used a legal maneuver from a 1911 law to suppress more than 5,000 absentee and shut in ballots. Four of the state Supreme Court justices, who Roberts played a role in putting on the bench, ruled in favor of Roberts. The fifth justice – Roberts’s bother - recused himself.

Del Sesto had the last laugh. He ran two years later and won the governorship in the days when Rhode Island had two year gubernatorial terms.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and commentary at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org