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Protecting Election 2020 from Covid-19: A Toolkit for Rhode Island Activists

If the Covid-19 pandemic continues into November, we will need to change our election practices to make sure voters don’t have to choose between their health and their right to vote. We have the solutions to make our elections both safe and accessible to all. And with this toolkit, you will know what reforms your state needs and where to focus your efforts.

Last Updated: September 11, 2020
Published: August 25, 2020

This is part of the Brennan Center’s Toolkits for Activists Across the Nation.

Jump to a section: 
Political Context  |  What’s in Place and What’s Needed  |  Key Dates

Administering an election under pandemic conditions requires undertaking steps to keep voting accessible, safe, and secure. The guide below lays out the problems Covid-19 poses, what preparedness measures Rhode Island has, and what changes are still needed. But first, we offer some political context for your advocacy.

Advocacy Focus: Local Reform

Local officials have a lot of responsibility over elections. They are a great place to focus advocacy efforts. Though state officials can make any of the changes in this toolkit, we highlight some examples of changes that local elections officials can also make with this symbol:🔸

Political Context

Below is a list of the relevant officials and information about the legislative session.

Governor: Gina Raimondo (D)  

Secretary of State: Nellie Gorbea (D)

Legislature: House (D) Senate (D)

Legislative Session: The legislature last adjourned on July 16, 2020. Only the governor can call a special legislative session.

Local Elections Officials: In Rhode Island, local boards of canvassers share responsibilities for administering elections. You can look up individual local boards of canvassers here.

What Rhode Island Has and What’s Needed

Three priorities. There are three key areas where we need to shore up our elections systems for success during a pandemic: registration, mail voting, and in-person voting.


Covid-19 may disrupt the traditional ways Americans register to vote, like get out the vote drives or registering at government agencies. In the crucial weeks before the registration deadline, postal service disruptions may lead many registration forms to arrive at election offices after the deadline.

Preparatory Measures Rhode Island Already Has Taken:

  • Online voter registration

Changes Still Needed:

  • Prepare to extend online and mail voter registration deadlines based on conditions in the state
  • Voter registration on Election Day to vote a full ballot

Voting by Mail

Because of Covid-19, long lines and crowds at the polls pose health risks not seen in previous elections. Allowing every citizen to vote by mail reduces the number of people at the polls on Election Day and decreases the exposure risk to Covid-19.

Preparatory Measures Rhode Island Already Has Taken:

  • All voters can vote by mail
  • No ID requirement to vote by mail
  • No notary or witness requirement for return of mail ballot (per consent decree)
  • Provides post-election notice and cure opportunity for defects on absentee-ballot envelope, including signature mismatch or missing signatures
  • Sending absentee-ballot applications to all voters who have not yet applied

Changes Still Needed:

  • Online tool for requesting an absentee ballot
  • Accept late-arriving ballots postmarked by Election Day
  • Provide pre-paid postage for voting by mail

In-Person Voting

Even with expanded mail voting opportunity, states cannot close polling places. To do so may disenfranchise voters without Internet and mail access, or those who do not wish to cast a ballot by mail. In-person voting must be done in accordance with health guidelines to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Preparatory Measures Rhode Island Already Has Taken:

  • In-person early voting

Changes Still Needed:

  • Ensure sufficient polling places are open and resourced on Election Day🔸
  • Open more in-person early voting locations🔸
  • Take proper public health precautions to ensure safe polling places🔸
  • Hold training sessions for polling-place workers well in advance of Election Day, so that election officials can better anticipate problems with staffing and logistics🔸
  • Increase access to curbside voting at polling locations

Advocacy Focus: Protecting Polling Places

No matter how prepared Rhode Island is as a matter of policy, elections officials and advocates must stay vigilant about ensuring safe, healthy in-person voting is an option for everyone all the way through Election Day. Here are some important things to know about who makes decisions about polling places in Rhode Island and what rules govern the process:

  • There is a prohibition on eliminating an existing polling place in a low-income or elderly residential development.🔸
  • Every polling place must be situated in a building that can be entered and exited by persons who are disabled or elderly, but exceptions are allowed on a limited basis.🔸
  • At each voting place, at least one voting booth shall be furnished for every 175 qualified electors, whose names are on the voting list used at the voting place and entitled to use machines.🔸

Key Dates for Rhode Island Elections

  • August 9, 2020: Deadline to register to vote for the Primary Election
  • September 8, 2020: Primary Election Day
  • October 4, 2020: Deadline to register to vote for the General Election
  • October 14 – November 2, 2020: In-person Early Voting
  • November 3, 2020: General Election Day