Although Election Day is still weeks away, voting begins this week as unprecedented numbers of mail ballots arrive in mailboxes and Oct. 14 starts early in-person voting.
Local elections officials say they are swamped with many tasks to ensure orderly voting while the fear-laced atmosphere of COVID-19 has produced greater demand for mail ballots and the threat of long lines to vote in person.
“It’s bordering on election fatigue at this point,” said Susan M. Flynn, town clerk for South Kingstown, and who is overseeing — as does each community’s town clerk’s office — preparations from large to small for these national, state and local elections.
“We come in everyday, we keep it together and work hard. Anything can change on a moment’s notice,” she said. “We are going to do everything we can to ensure people can vote safely and are able cast a ballot,” Flynn added.
A few numbers tell about this stress-filled time for those pulling together the balloting process.
The towns of Narragansett, South Kingstown and North Kingstown combined have seen a jump in mail ballot requests from 4,189 four years ago to 14,224 for this year’s election.
Then there’s the constant ringing of office phones with voters having questions, state-required changes for polling places, recording voters’ new addresses and names along with examining micro-details that are part of applications for mail ballots.
And that’s all been part of handling several different public balloting requirements, such as the statewide primaries and the presidential preference polling, in the last few months.
“Meeting the unprecedented demands of this election cycle, beginning well before the original Presidential Preference Primary date of April 28, in the midst of a pandemic has resulted in easily triple the workload of a conventional presidential election year,” said Narragansett Town Clerk Theresa C. Donovan.
“Ever-changing deadlines, ongoing training, mastering teleconferencing, staff required to work from home, unusually high voter interest, as well as voter anxiety, and the expectation of perfection are just some of the challenges we are facing,” she told The Independent this week.
Looking at the large picture, Jeannette Alyward, North Kingstown’s town clerk said bluntly, “COVID-19 had definitely changed how elections run.”
Importance of the Election
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.
Then there is voting itself. 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.
Fear of the coronavirus and doubts about the reliability of mail voting are weighing heavily on Americans as they decide how to safely ensure their vote will be counted in this fall’s presidential election, according to the survey. In 2016, about 4 in 10 ballots were cast early.
The likely surge in early voting and mail ballots will test election systems nationwide, many of which will be challenged to contend with an unprecedented volume of early votes or help voters who are struggling to learn the rules around mail ballots.
Early In-Person Voting
The effort in these three local towns is to avoid those kinds of problems and assure people it is safe to vote, beginning with in-person voting next week – Oct. 14 – at these and other town halls around the state.
Nick Domings, spokesman for Secretary of the State Nellie Nellie M. Gorbea, said that the early voting will be available during business hours at town and city halls, but encouraged voters to call ahead to confirm hours due to any COVID-19 changes.
He said that the secretary has posted on her website https://vote.sos.ri.gov/Voter/PersonVotingPage an explanation of the process and what voters will need. He also said that more than 150,000 mail ballots are being sent this week to voters who requested them.
Town clerks and town managers in each town explained that social distancing will be required and that people will be required to wear face masks.
Polling place staffers will work behind plastic panels; they also will wear face shields and masks.
For example, Narragansett Town Clerk Donovan echoed explanations from other town clerks designing protocols for their polling places.
“We will have acrylic shields positioned between poll workers and voters. Poll workers will be sufficiently spaced from each other and will be wearing masks,” she said.
“Gloves, full face shields and sanitizer spray will also be provided. Masks will be available for voters who do not have them. Sufficient ballot marking pens will be provided to avoid reuse. Floor markers will assist voters in maintaining distance while waiting their turn,” she said.
Alyward and Flynn both said that during the recent primary voting they, like Donovan, found that the voters were very comfortable with the accommodations and social distancing reminders displayed at the polls.
All three town clerks said that they expect the same procedures and plans will be in place for those going November 3 to the polls on Election Day.
Party Affiliation Changes
The Independent also did an analysis of party affiliation changes for Narragansett, South Kingstown and North Kingstown comparing August 2016 –right before the last presidential election – and to this September.
Across all three towns as well as the state in general, there is a decline in the number of unaffiliated voters. The state has seen a 9% decline, while the declines are higher in these local towns.
Narragansett saw a 15.5% drop, while both South Kingstown and North Kingstown had 13.3% decreases each.
Yet, these voters remain a healthy share – about 44 percent on average – in these towns.
Most independents lean toward one of the major parties (leaners tend to vote and have similar views as those who identify with a party), according to the Pew Research Center.
When the partisan leanings of independents are taken into account, 49% of registered voters identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, while 44% affiliate with the GOP or lean Republican on a national level, according to the center.
In addition, Narragansett also remained an outlier with its 24% increase in affiliation with the Republication party, outpacing that town’s 22.5% increase in the Democratic party.
For the other two towns, increases in the GOP affiliation were far less – 6% for South Kingstown and 10% for North Kingstown. Both of those towns measured strong increases in registering as a Democrat – 29.5% in South Kingstown and 37% in North Kingstown.
In these towns, however, the Democratic registration has consistently by overwhelming margins far exceeded Republican registration. Yet, both are surpassed by those declaring unaffiliated status.
While changes can be expected from year over year or even in different election cycles, the local numbers do not represent significant shifts in political leanings, according to those who study elections and voter affiliation.
Consistency in party registration tracks national trends. Strong majorities nationally of both Republican and Democratic voters have retained their party affiliation over the past two years, a tumultuous period marked by a global pandemic, protests against racial injustice and a presidential impeachment, according to the Pew Research Center.
There have been few significant changes in party identification among subgroups of voters since 2017. Yet over a longer period, dating back more than two decades, there have been profound shifts in party identification among a number of groups as well as in the composition of the overall electorate.