When it comes to voting, Secretary of the State Nellie M. Gorbea – also a North Kingstown resident – knows the pivotal moment a count of ballots brings.
She tells the story of her own campaign seven years ago to occupy the office she holds today. Even though she prevailed, some comments from friends stuck with her.
“In the two months between the September primary and the November general election, the most common thing I was told was, “Wow, Nellie, congratulations. I voted for you. I didn’t think you were going to win,’” she recalled about her 2014 win for statewide office.
“The first five times it is actually very funny and then as more and more people tell you that, it doesn’t seem as funny, but it was wow, people didn’t think I was going to win,” she said.
It was a subtle reminder of the fragility that some elections can have. It was also a resounding reminder of the importance of voting.
“But, they voted. So I’m able to tell people that while voting feels somewhat insignificant because it’s just you and the ballot, it’s a very personal experience. It is that personal experience and action that gets added to all these others that can actually change the course of history.”
She succeeded in that election Ralph Mollis who is now North Kingstown town manager of North Kingstown. Term-limit laws prohibited him from seeking that statewide office again. He agreed about the critical nature of collective action arising from the singular responsibility of casting a ballot.
“I would tell anyone, who feels their vote is not important, how important local seats are determined by a handful of votes each and every year,” added Mollis.
“Coupling that with the fact that 18-to-25-year-olds vote at the lowest percentage of any demographic only emphasizes how important it is for young people to exercise their right to vote. Their participation can truly make an enormous difference,” he said.
Gorbea agreed. In her stewardship of that office she inherited from Mollis she also has promoted civic engagement along with changing laws to make voting easier.
Her website at sos.ri.gov offers teachers, parents and the general public any number of materials to download to learn about the voting process in a democracy.
“I’m a real big believer in civic education having a long-run value, not just in a single election,” she said. It helps to promote involvement so that people have some feeling that they can weigh in with a voice on larger-than-life issues beyond their everyday control, she added.
“They could be concerned about the environment, or someone running for the town council. It’s all about their local interests now and in the future,” Gorbea explained. That opinion goes deep in her core values, she said.
“I love voting. I was one of those voters who showed up at 7 a.m. in the morning until I had kids,” the state voting official said with a laugh.
And, yet, she acknowledges the daily-grind poses challenges that keep people from remembering to vote in a national, state and local polling. She recalled her own hectic days of working in a demanding job away from home, raising children, last-minute shopping, hungry kids in the car and forgetting to vote.
“Literally, I had driven into my garage at seven-o’clock at night and gone, ‘Oh shoot, there was a sewer bond issue and we need to go vote,” she recalled.
“I heard cries in the car as I drive back out of the garage and say, ‘This is only going to take a few minutes’ and I’ve been that person who votes between 7:30 and eight o’clock at night,” she said.
It’s also good modeling for kids to see their parents’ interest in it, too, she added.
Yet, Gorbea said there are people whose eyes seemingly glaze over when this topic of personal engagement in voting arises in conversations.
“The way we have approached it historically is to sort of brow-beat people and just say, ‘Shame on you if you don’t vote,’ doesn’t recognize the fact that voting has become more universal over time,” she said.
With that change means making it easier for people who have competing demands – caring for children or elderly parents, 12-hour shift jobs leaving them tired or wanting simple-language descriptions, rather than legalistic, of the public issue needing a decision.
“Our ways of voting haven’t changed nearly as much and don’t reflect the needs the people have,” she said, noting that Rhode Island now has wide use of mail ballots because of the COVID-19 pandemic and marks this year a first for early in-person voting.
In the last presidential election, nationally 55.5 percent went to the polls. In Rhode Island the percentage was reported at 60.2 percent of eligible voters.
Secretaries of the state government across the country see a chief responsibility to increasing these numbers, as Gorbea is attempting, also weighing on Mollis from 2007 to 2015 during his term in office.
He said that he believes a record voter turnout occurred in 2008 with 475,000 ballots cast after various outreach efforts, including public service, paid and social media campaigns that involved targeting young voters in high schools and colleges.
“I realized the importance of one vote at a relatively young age. I witnessed an election in my hometown where a family friend won a town council seat by one vote. Also, at age 35, I was successful in defeating an incumbent mayor and winning the mayoral election by 59 votes,” he recalled.
As both of these past and present officials observed, every vote is important to an outcome of winners and losers, whether by large margins or squeakers.
With that every-vote-important message to drive up participation, this November’s election has been called “the most important election of our lifetime,” according to the Washington Post, which also debunked that saying with research showing its frequent use in just about every presidential election.
These two officials also offered views on that frame around the 2020 presidential election.
“I think this country really does stand on a decision-making moment (about) what kind of a country it’s going to be and the choices are very, very different at the federal level for the two candidates for president,” said Gorbea.
“It’s a layering of instances where your vote in this election is going to carry an incredible amount of weight beyond,” she said, “just who gets elected.”
“It’s really what policies, and what approaches are going to shape who we are as a people whether we live in North Kingstown or Rhode Island or the United States,” she added.
Mollis observed that all elections are most important because they don’t occur again. They happen only once.
“It’s interesting that, since 1952, every election has been called in one way or another the most important election of our time. Ironically, they are all correct,” he said.
“Each generation and each election brings its own set of challenges and promises. That alone confirms that the most important election of our time is always the next election. 2020 truly fits into that category,” he said.