Editor’s note: The South County Chapter of the League of Women Voters will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States this year in a series of monthly columns in The Sun. The amendment, which gave women the right to vote, became law on Aug. 26, 1920.
This article has been amended to reflect the correct phone number for the Rhode Island Secretary of the State.
The ancient city-state of Athens is considered the birthplace of true democracy, where citizens voted directly to make their laws. We in the United States live in a representative form of democracy in which our votes elect senators and representatives to represent us in Congress. For a representative democracy to work, all citizens must have an equal opportunity to vote. The U.S. Constitution did not always guarantee every citizen the right to vote. Neither women nor Native Americans could vote because neither were considered citizens. The Constitution further restricted voting by having senators elected by state legislators and not directly by the people. This was changed by the 17th amendment that provided for a direct vote by people of each state. And of course, the president is not elected directly by the people but instead by the Electoral College.
Who can vote is determined by each state — not by the U.S. Constitution. Aside from several amendments to the Constitution that ban discrimination on race and gender, states are free to add new rules, such as proof of identity, poll taxes and reading and writing requirements. In fact, in many states voting was formerly the privilege of white property owners only. Each state can determine the number of polling places and the hours for voting. Unlike many countries, election day in the U.S. is not a national holiday, although recently Virginia did make election day a state holiday.
In last month’s column we asked: Should voters have to decide between their health and voting in November? We suggested that mail-in voting would solve the problem, an idea that is being widely discussed across the country.
Since its founding in 1920, the League of Women Voters has advocated for all citizens to have the right to vote and continues to advocate for ways to increase voter participation today. As we are now faced with the unexpected challenge of protecting the right to vote in the face of the pandemic, the LWV is endorsing mail ballots as well as polling places for voters wishing to vote in person. Ballots with return paid postage can be returned via the Post Office or at ballot boxes distributed across the state. In-person voting in large polling places will allow voters to socially distance and protect poll workers. A ballot-tracking system needs to be implemented to allow voters to correct any deficiencies in their ballots so their vote will be counted.
Polls by three organizations at the end of April, including the Wall Street Journal/NBC, NPR, and Newsweek, consistently found that 70% of voters support mail-in voting. There is some concern that voting by mail will give one party an advantage over the other. It may surprise you to learn that the largest study to date by Stanford University on the partisan effects of vote-by-mail confirms prior research: neither Republicans nor Democrats gain an edge.
But don’t mail-in ballots present an opportunity for fraud? Fraud in elections is always a concern. In the early 1900s, New York City was famous for voting fraud. “Voting the cemetery” was prevalent. Today, with more ways to verify identity, fraud is far less likely. In the five states that currently have mail-in ballots for all registered voters, there is also no evidence of significant fraud. And there are positives for all mail ballots. In Oregon, which has had only mail ballots since 1998, costs are 20% to 30% less, turnout has been greater, and as the governor says: “You can’t hack paper.”
Obviously new laws need to include a prohibition on ballot harvesting, which was a significant problem in North Carolina in 2018, and also an allegation in the last Rhode Island election. There is plenty of time to make the necessary legislative changes for mail-ballot elections for Rhode Island’s September primary and the November general election. In our democracy, voting must be protected, and in the face of a global epidemic, voters’ health must also be protected.
The Rhode Island presidential primary is June 2 and will be primarily by mail ballot. Many of the readers of The Westerly Sun have probably received their mail-in ballot, which must be postmarked by election day. The requirement for two witnesses or a notary signature has been waived for the primary. If you have any questions about voting by mail in the presidential primary, go to vote.ri.gov or you can call the Secretary of State’s office at 401-222-2340.
If readers want to vote in person, Westerly will have one polling place at the Westerly Middle School on Sandy Hill Road open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
We would like to hear from some of the Sun’s readers. Where do you stand on how we should vote? Do you support mail-in voting for everyone? Should voting in person always be an option? Are you concerned about fraud? Should election day be a state holiday? A national holiday? Please email your responses to the League at email@example.com.
Nina Rossomando is president of the League of Women Voters South County. Follow them on Facebook at facebook.com/lwvrisc.