Rhode Island's chief elections officer: Primary might need to be sooner to aid service members



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PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — Rhode Island's chief elections officer says she's concerned there's not enough time between the September state primary and the November general election to get ballots back from military voters overseas, and the primary may need to be held sooner.

Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea said she's looking at the elections calendar as part of a review of the entire elections process. She said she wants to find ways to make it easier to vote and to engage more people.

"Would I will be willing to consider changing it? Absolutely," she said. "I come from a military family. Making sure people who are deployed can exercise their right to vote is front and center in my mind."

Rhode Island has one of the latest state primaries in the nation. It's scheduled for Sept. 13 in 2016, followed by the Nov. 8 general election.

Only Massachusetts has a later state 2016 primary and its Sept. 20 date is subject to change, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Experts said that advancing the date, however, could have unintended consequences, including possibly lowering voter turnout.

The public in general pays less attention to races earlier in the year, said Joseph Cammarano, an associate professor at Providence College.

"We want to bend over backward to help people serving the country in the military and Rhode Island does have a fair presence in the military," he said. "Is it worth losing as many people, or more, who probably won't vote because it's the summer? I don't know."

When Rhode Island elected Gina Raimondo as its first female governor in November, 190 of the 260 ballots sent to service members overseas were returned, according to Gorbea's office. Some may not have received it or sent it back on time, while others may have forgotten or decided not to vote.

Raimondo said she hasn't thought a lot about the timing of the primary.

"Certainly I am in favor of anything we can do to make voting easier, to make voting absentee easier, to allow early voting," she said.

The state primary has been on the second Tuesday after the first Monday in September since 1947.

John Marion, executive director of the open-government group Common Cause, said that if there was more time before the general election, it could help prevent recounts from being rushed in order to print ballots and send them overseas by the 45th day before the election, as required.

But, Marion said, if the public financing system didn't change, too, fewer candidates may take part in it because they would have to stretch out the money they received after the primary over a longer period.

Common Cause hasn't taken a position on the issue but favors reviewing the calendar as part of a larger examination of elections.

In a state dominated by Democrats, Republicans would want a later primary to give them more time to persuade independents, while Democrats wouldn't need or want that time because it shortens the time to build their base before the primary and the Democrat who wins in September will likely win in November, said Wendy Schiller, a Brown University professor.

The primary is set by state law and the legislature could change it. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said he hasn't discussed the idea with Gorbea.

Lawmakers changed the presidential preference primary date in 2011 from the fourth Tuesday in March to the fourth Tuesday in April to be more in line with other states in the region.

Mattiello said he's willing to listen, but at this point, advancing the date for the primary isn't on his agenda.

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