As the Sept. 8 primary next week draws closer and choices toss around in voters’ minds, local town clerks are seeing an uptick in early in-person voting that so far has been slower than expected, they report.
“It started out slow but word is getting out. The pace is picking up,” said Theresa Donovan, Narragansett town clerk.
South Kingstown and North Kingstown officials also noted that a slow but steady flow of voters have come to their town halls since Aug. 19 — just as if any day was primary day — for early voting.
Many attribute the smaller-than-expected numbers to the dramatic increase — over tenfold — of absentee ballots compared to the last primary, which was two years ago.
Narragansett reported earlier this week a total of 156 early in-person voters, while North Kingstown has seen 163 people cast ballots in town hall and 131 in South Kingstown town offices.
Meanwhile, the soaring requests for absentee ballots continued to push recorded history for them in each of the towns, officials reported. The June 18 cutoff for requests for primary absentee ballots showed totals far exceeding officials’ expectations.
South Kingstown saw a rise from 254 to 2,896; North Kingstown from 220 to 1,900 and Narragansett from 66 to 1,076.
Jeanette Alyward, North Kingstown town clerk, said she has already processed 1,000 requests for absentee ballots for the general election in November.
Susan Flynn, South Kingstown town clerk, said voting this week has been steady in that town and “I expect it to continue to increase throughout the week as we get closer to the election.”
Voicing the sentiments of other town clerks, she said overall, voters seem pleased with the new in-person voting for this year as well as the more comfortable absentee ballot requests made in past years.
“Voters appreciate the ability to drop off their voted primary ballots and applications for mail ballots for November in the outdoor drop box,” she said, adding that they were pleased with being able to do in-person voting in South Kingstown’s outdoor setting.
Narragansett and North Kingstown have voting inside their town halls, but all three have strict social distancing rules for those coming to vote.
Donovan said, “This process has given voters the opportunity to vote in person with virtually no waiting. Some people have indicated they chose to vote this way, assuming they would be exposed to fewer people than going to a traditional polling place on election day.”
Alyward added, “The Plexiglass at all public counters, staff wearing masks gives everyone a level of comfort and no one has refused to wear a mask when coming in.”
Low numbers for in-person voting in these three towns mirror other state figures showing a less-than-expected turnout.
Carol Wordell, president of the Rhode Island Town and City Clerks Association, said this week that so far, Cranston leads the intake during this early voting period with 275 as of a week ago.
Some town clerks said that the extraordinarily high numbers of people requesting absentee ballots has taken the pressure off of them coming early to vote.
Nick Domings, spokesman for Secretary of the State Nellie M. Gorbea, said that while numbers may be low, there’s no precedent for comparison.
“It’s hard to predict how busy a new policy will be, especially this year. Secretary Gorbea is just happy that voters have another safe and secure option for casting their ballot,” he said.
Giving people more time to vote — rather than just one day — whether in person or by absentee ballot improves the overall voting process, he said, adding that reducing crowds at polling places on election day is the chief benefit when social distancing is the norm.
“Most of the comments I’ve heard from voters have focused on that — little crowding, good physical spacing managed by the local boards of canvassers, in and out quickly,” he said.