Thursday, December 19, 2013

Next Up: Better Run Elections

These last weeks of December are generally a quiet time in both politics and baseball – giving me the opportunity to tune out, make some cookies and wrap presents. Red Sox tickets are on sale and it looks like they will open spring training with a team that looks remarkably similar to the 2013 World Champions. We can only hope they play as well.

This time next year, Rhode Islanders will be familiarizing themselves with a new lineup at the state house as all the general officers – except Attorney General Kilmartin – are moving on and a new team will be sworn in. As an electoral nerd, I am most interested in who wins the wide-open Secretary of State’s race and whether that person will make any effort to address some of the blatant and embarrassing issues with our elections process.

The Rhode Island General Assembly passed a voter ID law and while some have decried it as anti-someone, I think that if I need an ID to go to the movies, buy alcohol, cash a check, get a library card, sign a lease and receive government benefits, then flashing it to vote should not be a problem. If nothing else, the voter ID law prevents the “black helicopter” crowd from talking about busloads of people driving from polling station to polling station to vote illegally. It likely never happened and with an enforceable voter ID law, the allegation is more easily disregarded.

The challenge for the next Secretary of State is making sure that polls are set up to accommodate ID checks without slowing the line. Two things spring to mind - we need to recruit young civic-minded poll workers and we need to be more aggressive in promoting “no excuse” mail ballots. That’s right folks – you don’t need to wait until election day to cast your ballot and not very many people know about it. While Rhode Island lags behind 32 other U.S. states that allow for in-person early voting, you can still request a mail ballot – and you don’t even need a note from your mother. By making a conscious effort to recruit poll workers as soon as possible and educate people about the no-excuse mail ballot option, the next Secretary of State has the ability to make election day run smoothly.

However I think the most egregious issue with Rhode Island elections is that our primary date is late – so late in fact that it could violate ederal law under the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE Act) that requires ballots for uniformed services and overseas citizen voters be sent at least 45 days prior to a general election for Federal office. While there are actually 55 days between the primary and the general election in 2014, that’s barely enough time to get the ballots out the door – particularly if multiple recounts are required or there is a problem at the printer. Rather than just move the date back a few weeks, there’s a mad rush to get the ballots to the troops in time. As a military spouse, I find it disturbing that our elected officials are more concerned about the inconvenience of showing an ID at a polling place than making sure tour front line troops have the ability to exercise a right they are fighting for on our behalf.

Why not just move the date? It’s one of those things that fall under “incumbent protection.”  Once the dust from the primary settles, a challenger barely has enough time to mount a serious campaign, greatly favoring the person with existing name ID. And make no mistake – this is another area where Rhode Island is last: September 9th is the latest primary date set for 2014. Bottom line - we need a Secretary of State who will step up and advocate for an earlier primary.

So in this quiet time for baseball and politics, take a moment to take a close look at the players – and candidates on the roster for 2014. Unlike the Red Sox, Rhode Island has some important roles to fill and we need to make sure that the candidates are up for the job.

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