A wave of pro-voter access legislation is hitting the Ocean State and college students have an opportunity to take action to create sustainable change. Rhode Island has many outdated processes that make our elections difficult for voters and election administrators alike. In 2020, Rhode Island implemented measures to expand choices for voters during the pandemic. These reforms proved effective, and we must now codify them as well as consider other measures that will increase equal voter accessibility for all Rhode Islanders.
The Rhode Island Voting Access Coalition (RIVAC) is a group of 25 organizations (including Brown Votes) that work collectively to expand access to the ballot for all eligible Rhode Islanders. We are currently running a campaign to pass pro-voter access legislation. We are supporting two pieces of legislation in particular: an omnibus bill called the LetRIVote Act and a Same Day Registration Bill. The LetRIVote Act promotes equal voting access while also improving election administration. Some key provisions include: requiring the Board of Elections to notify voters whose mail ballots are not qualified and give them the opportunity to “cure their ballots” by signing an affidavit; requiring secure mail ballot drop boxes in every community; giving Rhode Islanders the opportunity to request mail ballots online and the Board of Elections additional time to process mail ballots; eliminating the requirement that two witnesses or a notary public sign the mail ballot envelope; and requiring the Secretary of State to maintain a bilingual voter hotline. The Same Day Registration Bill creates a system of same day voter registration in Rhode Island, as opposed to the current 30-day registration deadline.
This campaign is highly relevant to RI college students; the reforms in this bill will remove various barriers to student voting. Increasing youth turnout is critical considering the historically low voter turnout rates for the 18-29 demographic. For example, only 43% of this age group voted in 2016. This percentage greatly increased in 2020; in fact, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Education at Tufts University estimates that 52-55% of 18-29 year-olds voted in the general election. The surge in voter turnout can certainly, in part, be attributed to the expansion of voting options this past election cycle. Voting can be a daunting process for young individuals— implementing more flexibility and providing more options for casting one’s ballot will help alleviate this anxiety.
Same Day Registration is an essential reform. RI currently has a 30-day registration deadline — the longest in the U.S. along with Alaska. Students in particular are often unaware of such deadlines. First-year students who plan to vote in RI may be especially impacted by this inflexible deadline.
There are three areas of the Let RI Vote Act that increase accessibility for student voters in particular: the expansion of early voting, removal of the burdensome two witness or notary requirement to vote by mail, and codification of secure ballot drop boxes.
Our student schedules are generally unrelenting and unpredictable. Additionally, many institutions of higher education in Rhode Island do not give students Election Day off from classes. Students therefore benefit greatly from flexibility in terms of when they can vote, and the Let RI Vote Act enables this by extending the early voting period and requiring early voting availability on the weekend, a time when students generally have more free time, before Election Day.
The two witness or notary requirement to vote by mail is a clear barrier to student voter participation. Many students do not have access to a notary and are also unsure of how to locate one. This requirement mandates a tedious additional step in the vote by mail process, and the unnecessary practice (in regard to improving election security) deters rather than encourages student voter participation. By removing the requirement, the Let RI Vote Act renders voting by mail more accessible to college voters.
In 2020, Rhode Island voters greatly benefited from the implementation of secure ballot drop boxes; however, this practice is not required by law for future elections. The LetRIVote Act codifies this additional method of securely casting a ballot with confidence. Secure drop boxes are an election staple in states such as Colorado and Washington. 75% of all mail ballots are returned via drop boxes in CO, and in the 2016 general election, 57% of ballots in WA were cast via a drop box. Evidently, the ballot drop box system is a popular choice among voters.
Drop boxes are particularly helpful to college students. It is my experience that sending out mail while enrolled as a student can be difficult, time consuming, and present financial burdens. During Election season, school mailrooms are often chaotic and overloaded — lines extend beyond the building and piles of mail line the counters— and students are at risk of their ballots not arriving in time to count. This bill specifically requires the installation of a drop box at each campus of a public institution of higher education that has 500 or more enrolled students. Each town and city would also be required to have at least one drop box, creating options for students attending private institutions like Brown. The availability of secure drop boxes provides student voters with an accessible and efficient method for returning their mail ballot and having their votes counted.
The campaign to pass this legislation is people-powered, and we as students have the opportunity to raise our voices and contribute in meaningful ways. Those who believe the aforementioned legislation will lead to more equal voting access should sign the petition, submit written testimony in support of the legislation, and engage with or contribute to the campaign’s digital strategy. This is our opportunity to positively impact Rhode Island politics and pave the way for accessible voting for current and future RI college students.
Our generation is increasingly politically engaged, as evidenced by the improved voter turnout rates in 2020, and we must build on this momentum by ensuring we remove all barriers to voting. I ask that you support the LetRIVote campaign in any way you can. Passing this legislation will increase voter accessibility for students which is paramount to empowering life-long voter participation — the bedrock of our democracy.
Important Links: https://linktr.ee/letrivote
Summary of LetRIVote Act (S 516, H 6003): https://6q6lb19guo92igre72p7w3x1-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/38/2021/03/LetRIVoteOnePager.pdf
Summary of Same Day Registration Bill (S 569, H 5983): https://6q6lb19guo92igre72p7w3x1-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/38/2021/03/SameDayRegistrationOnePager.pdf
If anyone has any questions or would like to get involved please email Madison_mandell@brown.edu!