The South Kingstown Democratic Committee is doing everything it can to limit the number of people who will decide the fate of two referenda questions, that could reduce the 2020 tax rate by 1.90%, in a special election on June 9.
Why? Because they know only 10 to 20 percent of eligible voters turn out for special polls, and smaller turnouts tilt their way. Factor in the COVID-19 pandemic, and this could be the lowest turnout, by the percentage of eligible voters, in S.K.’s 297-year history, and that’s with nice weather.
Petitioning the government is one of the rights explicitly protected in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. These referenda started as two petitions, both of which easily met the standard spelled out in the Town Charter with verified signatures of 265 registered voters. Like the two people who drafted these petitions, I believe the Town Council and the School Committee have ignored the financial hardships caused by the pandemic since mid-March on their constituents, some of whom are now among the 150,000 Rhode Islanders that have applied for unemployment, and others living on fixed incomes.
As it stands now, every voter, including those 60 plus years old — who today make up more than 25% of South Kingstown’s electorate — will have to go to the Recreation Center off of Broad Rock Rd and vote in person. No matter how well organized the polling setup at the Rec Center may be, people shouldn’t have to leave the safety of their homes and apartments to vote during this pandemic, unless they want to. Are you going to make single parents, who may not have child care services they can depend on, bring their children with them to vote?
There are no provisions for mail-in voting like those the State of R.I. has afforded people who wish to cast a ballot in the presidential primary one week earlier, on June 2. Why not, was the question I put to the Town Council during their Zoom meeting on May 11. Even though Section 1220 – Code of Ethics of the Charter states in A-3, “It is the policy of the Town of South Kingston that its public officials, elected or appointed…must be open, accountable and responsive to the people,” I never heard from any of our five councilors on May 11, or since.
The cost of introducing mail-in balloting cannot be used as a reason not to do it. If the three-person majority block on the council can pull $1.2 million from the town’s unassigned fund balance to ensure the School Committee gets their requested 2% PTA increase for FY 2020-21, then they should have no problem finding the money to set up voting-by-mail.
It shouldn’t be difficult. Send a letter to every registered voter explaining each of the referenda in detail, and what a Yes or a No vote means. This same letter also contains the ballot for people who wish to vote by mail and an envelope to return it in on or before June 9. If an ordinance is needed to set this in motion, the council can do it under Sec. 3214 of the charter dealing with emergencies “…affecting the public…, health, safety, …and welfare of the inhabitants of the town…” Emergency ordinances are automatically repealed 61 days after adoption.
As much as this is about turnout, it’s also about fairness. Educating the electorate about the issues and the candidates will be harder this year, much harder. Households with reduced incomes and seniors may not be able to afford cable and internet service to their homes or apartments; newspaper readership is down, the libraries are closed. All of these factors favor the Democratic Party, which has been the majority party in RI since 1941. How much more of a head start do they need? If you agree, tell the town council to get to it.