Early voting embraced by Rhode Islanders during pandemic, approved by lawmakers afterward

EDITOR'S NOTE: This page is part of a comprehensive guide to voting rights across the U.S. and in Puerto Rico. 

One of the most recent and significant changes that made it easier to vote in Rhode Island was due to the pandemic.

Early in-person voting in the Ocean State was signed into law in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, which led to 29% of votes cast in person before Election Day, which included a presidential contest.

Now, those COVID-era early voting rules have become permanent.

Under the new rules, in the 20 days leading up to an election, Rhode Islanders are allowed to vote in person at a city or town hall, or another designated location, during normal business hours. For most cities and towns, early voting can take place in the office of the local board of canvassers.

For proof of identification, voters in Rhode Island are asked to provide a valid photo ID, but if a voter does not have a photo ID, they are not turned away. They can vote via an emergency mail ballot.

Rhode Island first state to give former felons voting rights

Rhode Island also has been at the forefront of allowing former felons to be able to cast a ballot.

In 2006, through a voter referendum that led to a constitutional amendment, it became the first state to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people. The ballot question passed by a margin of 51% to 49%.

Rhode Islanders convicted of felonies lose their right to vote while they are incarcerated but once paroled or on probation, or upon completing their sentences, they may register to vote and cast ballots.

People convicted of misdemeanors do not lose the right to vote and can request an absentee ballot.

Rhode Island's vote-by-mail simple, excuse-free

When it comes to absentee and mail-in voting, Rhode Island treats them the same.

Under legislation passed earlier this year during the General Assembly and then signed by Gov. Dan McKee, voters may apply for mail ballots online, and may vote by mail without explaining why they are unable to go to their local polling place.

"Over the past year, our Democracy has been tested and we must do everything we can to protect it," McKee said at the time.

He called the measure "a comprehensive set of common sense tools to protect Rhode Islanders' voting rights."

The legislation also ended a previous requirement, which had been suspended in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, that mail ballots be either signed by two witnesses or notarized. Instead, the voter's own signature is verified using registration records.

Rhode Island also makes it easier to vote since every city and town is required to maintain at least one drop box where voters can deposit ballots through the close of polls on Election Day.

And nursing home residents are allowed to opt-in to automatically receive applications for mail ballots in every future election.

Mail ballot applications must be received by the local board of canvassers 21 days before a primary or general election. But if voter misses the deadline, he or she can request an emergency mail ballot.

Polling supervisors Bob and Anne Aubin of Woonsocket greet residents at the Johnston High School polling place.
Polling supervisors Bob and Anne Aubin of Woonsocket greet residents at the Johnston High School polling place.

All mail ballots must be received by the state Board of Elections before the polls close on the day of an election.

Mail ballots have become increasingly popular in Rhode Island. The percentage of  voters using mail ballots increased dramatically in the 2020 general election, to 33%. It had been 7% in 2018 and 9% in 2016.

Rhode Island passes photo ID requirement with partisan support

On the issue of proof of identification, Rhode Island lawmakers passed a voter ID law with bipartisan support in 2011, and recent efforts to overturn the law have been defeated.

However, a person who does not present a photo identification may cast a provisional ballot. The person then has until the close of business on the day following the election to provide information to the board of canvassers that would help qualify the ballot to be counted.

Acceptable forms of identification include a state driver's license or permit, a U.S. passport, an ID card from a federally recognized tribe, an ID card from any U.S. educational institution, a U.S. military ID, a government-issued medical card, a Rhode Island Public Transit Authority bus pass, or a state-issued voter ID card.

No photo identification is required to cast a mail ballot.

Has voter fraud been found in Rhode Island?

While accusations of voter fraud have become the topic of debate elsewhere in the nation, in Rhode Island, it is statistically non-existent. Since 2018, the Board of Elections has conducted only 21 voter-fraud investigations, and just four of which were referred to the attorney general's office.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Rhode Island voting: Early voting the latest change to election laws