R.I. elections good, can get better

In less than a year, Rhode Islanders will be able to participate in one of the most remarkable exercises a group of people bound by citizenship and residency can participate in — elections. On Sept. 9, 2014, Rhode Island will hold primary elections. On Nov. 4, 2014, it will hold general statewide elections and almost all municipal elections.

We trust that elections will be fair and held with integrity, but it is key to our democracy that the electoral system works flawlessly as well. When elections are not run smoothly, it can easily result in citizens’ not being able to vote.

Over the past two centuries, significant improvements have been made to elections in Rhode Island. Some changes have been legal in nature, while others have involved changes to how elections are held. The most important legal changes were those made to the United States and Rhode Island constitutions expanding the right to vote. But making it easy for people to exercise their right to vote is an important complement to the right to vote. In Rhode Island, two of the biggest changes in how elections are held have made our state a model for others by increasing voters’ ability to vote quickly and easily.

The first of these changes came in 1998, when Rhode Island successfully moved from large, labor-intensive manual-lever voting machines to scanned paper ballots. This effort was spearheaded under then-Secretary of State James Langevin. The scanned ballots make most election results apparent within an hour of the polls’ closing, while making voting accessible to many more people including those with physical disabilities.

In 2004, under then-Secretary of State Matt Brown, Rhode Island moved from 39 individual voting lists to a statewide voter registration system, with bar-coded poll books that make it easier for poll-workers to find voters on the lists and for election officials to account for who voted. The statewide voter list enabled the creation of an online voter information center that makes it easy for registered voters to find out where their polling place is located, look at a sample ballot, and find out who their elected officials are, even down to the municipal council level.

Earlier this year, the Pew Charitable Trusts recognized the importance of these tools by identifying Rhode Island’s electoral system as one of nine state systems with perfect scores on a review of online lookup tools for voters. These nationally recognized improvements, however, are little consolation for voters who showed up at polling places last year to find that the wrong ballots were delivered or worse — that they had to wait several hours to exercise their right to vote.

In a February 2013 report to the General Assembly House Oversight Committee (“We have to fix that”), Common Cause Rhode Island detailed how several changes made to election law before the 2012 election — including voter-identification requirements, consolidation of voting districts, and redistricting — may have had a negative impact on the election. Common Cause cited MIT political scientist Charles Stewart III showing how over the last four years, Rhode Island experienced one of our nation’s largest increases in wait times at election precincts.

Problems at the polls on Election Day affect the way Rhode Islanders see their government. A person who walks away from a polling place because the line is too long leaves with the same type of negative feeling about our government as does someone who doesn’t even try to vote because they feel it is a useless exercise.

However, the most significant outcome of botched election processes or delays at the polls is that they might lead to disenfranchisement of our citizens. Ensuring that all eligible voters can and do vote is critical to the health of our democracy. Participation in our elections shows that we are a community that is engaged in our future.

Our electoral system must be continuously examined and improved. Investments in our elections help safeguard our democracy. We must ensure that our government operates efficiently and effectively so that every person’s right to vote can be exercised. On Election Day next September and November, let’s be sure that our elections are fair, held with integrity, and a positive experience for all voters.

Nellie Gorbea was Rhode Island’s deputy secretary of state from 2002-2006. She is a Democratic candidate for secretary of state.