Rhode Island Voters ‘Caught Off Guard’ By Poll Closures And Voter ID Law

Voters wait outside a polling place to vote in the presidential primary, Tuesday, March 4, 2008, in Providence, R.I. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/STEW MILNE
Voters wait outside a polling place to vote in the presidential primary, Tuesday, March 4, 2008, in Providence, R.I. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/STEW MILNE

Sixty-six percent of Rhode Island’s normal polling places will be closed on the state’s fast-approaching presidential primary, leaving at least one advocate worried that voters will experience confusion and frustration while trying to cast ballots.

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, told ThinkProgress that voters have been “caught off guard” by the fact that only 144 of the state’s 419 polling places will be open on Tuesday. Though Rhode Island has consolidated precinct locations before, he said that abnormally high voter interest — combined with the state’s relatively new voter ID law — has him concerned that problems will arise.

“It’s been standard practice for Rhode Island to consolidate the number of polling places for the presidential primary,” Marion said. “But people’s responses have been different, because both the Democratic and Republican races are still hotly contested coming into Rhode Island, and that hasn’t been true in the recent past. So people have been caught off guard by the consolidation, and the fact that they might not be voting where they typically vote in November.”

People have been caught off guard by the consolidation, and the fact that they might not be voting where they typically vote in November.

According to the Boston Globe, Rhode Island routinely closes polling locations during presidential primaries “to keep costs low during an election that usually sees few voters.” State election officials have assured reporters that things will go smoothly, noting that they’ve added more polling workers and voting booths to each site.

The precinct consolidations were announced back in January, but are likely receiving attention now because of the recent controversy in Maricopa County, Arizona, where voters waited in hours-long lines to cast ballots after polling place consolidations there.

In Maricopa County — which has 1.25 million eligible voters — only 60 polling sites were open on primary election day this year. For the 2008 primary, Maricopa County had 400 open polling places. Rhode Island, which has about 840,000 registered voters, will have 144 open sites this year. In 2008, the state had approximately 170 open voting sites.

Still, Marion said there could be confusion, especially among student and elderly voters. He noted that while Brown University usually has a polling place on campus, it will be moved off-campus for primary day on Tuesday. In addition, some polling places that were traditionally inside senior citizen buildings will be moved off-site.

“We seem to be seeing voters who haven’t necessarily participated in primaries before, so they’re not as informed about how RI typically administers primaries,” Marion said. “They might be unaware that their November polling location isn’t also their presidential primary location.”

This April 24, 2012 file photo shows a sign at the entrance of a polling station in East Greenwich, R.I., advises voters that identification is required. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steven Senne
This April 24, 2012 file photo shows a sign at the entrance of a polling station in East Greenwich, R.I., advises voters that identification is required. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steven Senne

In addition to concerns about the polling place consolidations, Marion said confusion may arise with the state’s new requirement that voters provide photo identification at the polls. Though the voter ID law was passed in 2011, Tuesday will be the first time photo identification will be required during a presidential primary election, he said.

“The concern is that voter ID hasn’t been in the news here lately because it was a new issue back in 2011 and 2012,” Marion said. “So people might be unaware that they have to bring their ID.”

Rhode Island’s voter ID law is what’s known as a “soft” voter ID law. That means that if registered voters don’t have their identification, they can still vote on a provisional ballot. The ballot will eventually be counted if the voter’s signature matches the one on their voter registration.

People might be unaware that they have to bring their ID.

Still, there have been some problems documented with the voter ID law’s implementation so far. In 2014, the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union documented three cases where voters were not given provisional ballots when they lacked proper identification.

Problems like these could be solved, Marion said, if Rhode Island invested more money into the election process. That way, the state could have better trained poll workers, more open polling sites, and clear public information about when, how, and where to vote.

“The reason why they consolidate polling places is money — it costs cities and town in Rhode Island money to hire poll workers, and they don’t want to spend if they think turnout is going to be low,” Marion said. “But it leads to a vicious cycle of making voting less accessible, so people are less likely to turn out.”