TOM WARD - Election reform: It's time to modernize process

TOM WARD - Election reform: It's time to modernize process

New Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea thinks it's high time we improved elections in Rhode Island, and I think she happens to be right. She stopped into our office recently to make her case, and while we disagree on other issues like the recently enacted Voter I.D. laws, or giving driver's licenses to non-citizens, we agreed to not get too deep in the weeds on those questions. Uppermost on her agenda this year is election reform, and an overhaul of the state's lobbying rules.

House Bill 6051 is the "Voting and Elections Modernization Act of 2015." In it, Gorbea takes up the stinging criticism of the state a few years ago by ERIC, the non-profit Electronic Registration Information Center, which made the claim noted by many that thousands of dead people remained on the state's voter lists. It's pretty embarrassing, really, and not the result of poor employees but poor processes, and differing laws and ordinances that have federal, state, and local officials not communicating effectively. Rather than re-write Gorbea's goals, I'll simply quote from her press release:

"This legislation, aims (1) to make it easier for citizens to register to vote through secure online registration; (2) to improve the accuracy and integrity of Rhode Island's voter rolls to help prevent opportunities for voter fraud by removing duplicate registrations and deceased voters; and (3) to enable Rhode Islanders to vote, using existing voting methods, at times more convenient to them.

(1) Online Voter Registration. (Gorbea's) proposed legislation would provide Rhode Islanders with a convenient, secure, and cost-effective online method to register to vote or update voter registration. Online voter registration will save money while also reducing the administrative burden placed on local elections officials. Twenty-five states (including Massachusetts and Connecticut) have passed online voter registration.

(2) Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC). ERIC is a non-profit organization with the sole mission of assisting states to improve the accuracy of America's voter rolls and increase access to voter registration for all eligible citizens. ERIC is bringing a number of efficiencies to member state voter rolls, including identifying cross-state movers, in-state duplicate registrations, and deceased voters. Minnesota indicates that local counties have saved more than $116,000 since joining ERIC in August 2014. ERIC provides Rhode Island with the opportunity to ensure our voter rolls are accurate and help prevent voter fraud, while also saving our state significant dollars in unnecessary printing and mailing costs. Currently, 13 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation to join ERIC.

(3) In-Person Early Voting. Our democratic process has not caught up with the changes and challenges of today's modern society. (Gorbea's) legislation establishes a 28-day period for voters to cast their ballot in-person in advance of Election Day. This legislation expands on our state's "emergency" mail ballot statute. Our legislation builds upon an already familiar process, but also ensures cost-effectiveness by eliminating the need for additional polling locations, eases Election Day administrative burdens, and reduces wait-times on Election Day. To address the decline in voting and lifestyle changes, 32 states have passed in-person early voting laws and 22 of these states offer in-person early voting on weekends."

I have heard many voices on the right claim that these efforts (excluding ERIC) are geared towards helping get more lazy voters (of a certain party) to vote. But those same voices also said Republican Cory Gardner, in Colorado last fall running against Democratic incumbent Mark Udall, didn't stand a prayer because of these new laws. They were wrong, and wrong by a wide margin.

Our lifestyles and technologies have changed, and so should our election laws. I'm in favor of these changes, and most notably, our state's joining in the ERIC system.

Ward is publisher of The Valley Breeze newspapers