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Deb McCurdy, second from left, waits in line to cast her ballot while voting in a garage in the South Kingstown Town Hall's parking lot on Oct. 27. Also pictured at left is town hall employee Linda Stedman, who was directing voters in line.

Unprecedented numbers of voters are casting early votes this year, putting pressure on local officials to ensure each vote is counted.

Instead of the traditional low numbers of mail ballots and voting only on one day — Election Day — officials have been mired in thousands of people essentially wanting to vote early, including in-person voting at town halls for the last two weeks.

“It’s great!” exclaimed Wendi Knowles of South Kingstown as she waited in a short line to vote this week at South Kingstown Town Hall. “I can come whenever I want, not just one day,” she added.

In Narragansett, at town hall with her son, Ryan, and daughter, Tori who was voting for the first time, Kim Ferreira offered that it will help reduce lines on Election Day.

“It will certainly help with shorter lines and we should continue this,” said Ferreira.


Numbers of Early Voters

The combination of an emotionally charged election and voter fears of catching a virus while around other people also in line to vote have brought over 50 million people to cast ballots already nationwide.

Rhode Island is following the pattern with high numbers of voters using mail ballots and the first-ever early in-person voting at town halls across the state.

“I am thrilled to see Rhode Islanders participating in record numbers. High turnout elections nurture our democracy, making sure that a diversity of voices are heard,” said Secretary of the State Nellie Gorbea of North Kingstown.

The Secretary of the State’s office reported that as of Monday in South Kingstown out of 3,065 votes already cast, 61% of those votes were by mail ballot and 39% were early in-person voting. About 40% of eligible voters have already cast ballots.

In North Kingstown out of 3,206 votes cast already, 60% of those votes were by mail ballot and 40% were cast early in-person. About 36 percent of eligible voters have already cast ballots here.

In Narragansett, out of 1,955 votes cast, 55% of those votes were by mail ballot and 45% were done by early in-person at town hall. In this town, about 45% of eligible voters have already cast ballots.

Robert Zarnetske, South Kingstown town manager, echoed the sentiments of other officials in the three-town area when he called 2020 “an extraordinary year.”

Voters and those who make the voting possible and accurate have been inundated with setting up various other election-related polling, too.

These included primaries and elections for presidential preference selection as well as the current national election, all amid many new restrictive requirements for reducing the risk of COVID-19 infections from polling places.


Swamped with Work

Town clerks reported they are swamped with many tasks to ensure orderly voting in the fear-laced atmosphere of COVID-19.

In a recent interview, Susan M. Flynn, town clerk for South Kingstown, said, “It’s bordering on election fatigue at this point.” Like other town clerks, she is overseeing preparations from large to small for these elections.

“We come in everyday, we keep it together and work hard. Anything can change on a moment’s notice,” she said. “This might be the most important election in our lifetimes and we are going to do everything we can to ensure people can vote safely and are able cast a ballot,” Flynn added.

Indeed, she may be right, if polls on voting are correct.

About six-in-10 registered voters nationwide say they want to cast their ballots before Election Day, a significant departure from previous years, according to The Washington Post’s surveys.

Today, 83% of registered voters say that it “really matters who wins” the presidential election, higher than the share who said this at similar points in any prior presidential elections dating back to 2000, according to the Pew Research Center for U.S. Politics and Policy.

In 2016, about three-quarters (74%) said the outcome of the election really mattered, while smaller majorities in 2012 (63%), 2008 (63%) and 2004 (67%) also said it really mattered who won.


Deadline for Mail Ballots

For those mailing a ballot and having those concerns about who wins, they need a sharp focus on getting it sent or dropped off on time, according to state officials.

Gorbea said that in Rhode Island all mail ballots for the Nov. 3 general election must be received by election officials by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Given possible delays in mail delivery, any Rhode Island voter who still has a mail ballot is encouraged to return it using secure drop boxes located in every community, her office said.

“Rhode Island could see record turnout in this election. Don’t miss out on being part of history because you returned your ballot too late,” said Gorbea.

“Using a secure drop box will ensure that your mail ballot is received in time to be counted,” she added.

Her office said that drop boxes in Rhode Island are under surveillance 24 hours a day. They are emptied daily by local boards of canvassers and the mail ballots are transported to the Board of Elections.

Voters can use any drop box to return their mail ballot. Voters can use a drop box finder to find the one closest to them and track the status of their mail ballot online at vote.ri.gov.


Early Voting’s Rave Reviews

Many local residents said they approve of the early voting, whether in-person or by mail ballot because it gives convenience in normal busy schedules.

“It is maximizing opportunity and that’s great,” said Vincent Colapietro, of Narragansett, just after he voted and was leaving town hall.

With national data showing that voter turnout could be stronger, convenience might be an option to help boost those numbers, they said.

They also, however, saw a difference in voter engagement by going to an early in-person polling place rather than just filling-in bubbles on a ballot mailed to them, many said, with one noting “personal engagement in physically doing it.”

“People who can get here should go to the polls and vote in person. Mail ballots are for the people who cannot,” said Wendi Knowles while in line to vote.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to re-thinking ways we vote that might have not been widely adopted without the pressing need of avoiding a contagious virus, many said.

Those in quarantine will need a mail ballot as will the infirmed or others who cannot stand in line.

However, spreading out in-person early voting – as Rhode Island has done this year for three weeks before the actual voting day – is something that should have been done earlier, said Deb McCurdy, of South Kingstown, who also voted this week.

“We didn’t know we should have done it before COVID,” she said.

Jane Baumann of South Kingstown has been voting for decades. On Tuesday this week she brought an elderly friend to the town’s makeshift polling place outside town hall.

“I hope they do it forever,” she said.

Bill Seymour is a freelance writer covering news and personality feature stories in Narragansett, North Kingstown and South Kingstown. He can be reached at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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