Common Cause Rhode Island will continue to update this page with resources and more information as Rhode Island’s response to the crisis evolves.
This section was updated on September 11, 2020
Changes & Challenges to Democracy in the Ocean State
The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged our democracy in Rhode Island and forced us to adapt quickly to maintain an open, ethical, and accountable government. Our work has largely focused on maintaining transparency and accessibility as public meetings move online. We are also focused on making sure voting rights are maintained while public health is preserved.
Common Cause Rhode Island’s Response
We are living in an unprecedented time. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world overnight and we are still trying to figure out how to cope as a society. Despite this challenge we remain focused on ensuring our democracy continues to function; people respond to the 2020 Census, public meetings allow the same level of participation as they move online and that our 2020 elections can be held safely and securely.
Rhode Island voters traditionally vote at polling places on Election Day. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic it became clear that voters need to have options for voting safely. Common Cause Rhode Island hosted a webinar with election experts from around the country explaining how the Ocean State can pivot to provide voters with additional options.
Starting with the April 28th Presidential Preference Primary along with allies we provided suggestions for the Rhode Island Board of Elections. The Presidential Preference Primary–moved to June 2nd–was largely a success. More than 80 percent of voters cast their ballots by mail, up from less than five percent in 2016. There were problems with some voters not receiving requested ballots, or not receiving ballots at the correct address.
In June we supported the Safe and Healthy Voting in 2020 Act a comprehensive bill to create a real system of early voting, and expand access to mail ballots. The General Assembly did not take up the bill. In July the General Assembly reconvened and we won a victory when the General Assembly did make changes to the emergency mail ballot process that made voting safer and more secure.
The General Assembly did fail to act on a bill to expand access to mail ballots, and as a result we filed a lawsuit, along with the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island and three individual plaintiffs. That lawsuit asked to set aside during the pandemic the requirement that voters have two witnesses or one notary public sign their mail ballot. That lawsuit made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where we won.
In September the state held a successful statewide primary and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea decided to send mail ballot applications to all registered voters. We continue to monitor changes to election administration to make sure they protect voting rights.
On March 16th Governor Gina Raimondo issued Executive Order 20-05 suspending the requirement that public bodies (i.e. state and municipal boards including city and town councils) meet in person. Common Cause Rhode Island, along with the RI ACLU, immediately provided feedback to the administration asking for changes to her order. On March 24th the Department of Administration issued guidance based on our suggestions.
On March 31st we hosted a training with Leadership Rhode Island and the League of Cities and Towns for more than 300 municipal officials with lessons for how to hold online public meetings. On April 15th we sent a second letter to Governor Raimondo urging further changes to renewal of EO 20-05 and on April 17th she issued EO 20-25 again incorporating some of our suggestions. That executive order was renewed on May 15th and is set to expire on June 14th.
Attorney General Peter Neronha has offered useful guidance on the new executive order. The Department of Business Regulations has created a guide for holding a public meeting using the Zoom conferencing platform. Common Cause has laid out four principles for transparent and accessible government. Those include public notice, observation, participation and deliberation. Details of what those should look like are in the downloadable document.
We will continue to work to encourage transparency and accessibility as the government moves online.
A complete 2020 Census is essential: it decides how many federal dollars our communities will receive for critical resources like schools, roads, and – especially important today – hospitals. Census data is also used to determine how much Congressional representation we get and to conduct redistricting in the state.
Common Cause Rhode Island is in the leadership of the statewide Complete Count Committee. We are working with them to adapt outreach efforts during the pandemic, shifting efforts online.
You can do your part by completing your census online today at my2020census.gov.
On June 12th we launched the Safe and Healthy Voting in 2020 Act with 16 partner organizations. We held a press conference.
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea
Dr. Sarah Fessler of the Rhode Island Medical Association
Steven Brown of the ACLU Rhode Island
Jim Vincent of the Providence Branch of NAACP.
The COVID-19 pandemic has moved public meetings online. On May 20th we held a special Demystifying Democracy event exploring Government Transparency in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Abel Collins, Council President of South Kingstown
Shawn Selleck, City Clerk of Providence
Steve Ahlquist, Journalist for Uprise RI
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic many states are exploring how to increase the use of mail ballots to hold successful elections.Common Cause Rhode Island hosted a webinar on April 19th, Voting by Mail During the COVID-19 Pandemic. We discussed what it takes to successfully transition a state to using primarily mail ballots featuring national experts.
Elena Nunez, Director of State Operations and former ED Colorado Common Cause
Jennifer Morrell, Consultant and former Deputy of Elections, Arapahoe County, CO
Noah Praetz, Consultant and former Director of Elections, Cook County, IL