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Predicted mail ballot flood will make it ‘almost impossible’ for R.I. to know winners on Election Night

Counting could continue for several days

A surge in mail ballot voting could delay election results.
A surge in mail ballot voting could delay election results.Seth Wenig/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE – Every politician and campaign operative has their own Election Day ritual, but at some point, most of them end up asking the same question in calls or text messages to anyone – reporters, friends, each other – who might have some intel to share: “What are ya hearing?”

The answers rarely have any value, and most aren’t even true. A voting machine is broken in South Kingstown. The lines are long in Providence. Everyone, everywhere, is somehow cheating. They all know that elections aren’t actually won on Election Day, but the gossip serves as a twisted form of therapy.

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This year, the normal anxiety that ripples through Rhode Island’s political class will be enhanced and extended because it’s likely that winners won’t be declared for several days after polls close at 8 p.m. for both the Sept. 8 primary and Nov. 3 general election.

With fears over the coronavirus expected to lead to tens of thousands of additional mail ballots this election cycle, officials say they see no way that all votes will be counted to definitively call winners, especially in local races that could see more than half of all votes arrive via the mail.

“I find it almost impossible that you’ll have the results the night of the election,” said Robert Rapoza, the executive director of the Rhode Island Board of Elections.

In Rhode Island, all mail ballots are sent to the Board of Elections and processed manually, while machine votes are counted in real time at each precinct after polls close. In past races that were too close to call at the polls, the board has taken several days to count mail ballots and declare a winner.

During the presidential preference primary in June, more than 100,000 residents voted by mail, while about 14,000 showed up at the polls. For that primary, the state sent every voter a mail ballot application. The state is not sending applications for the Sept. 8 primary, and it’s unclear whether they’ll be mailed ahead of the general election.

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While Rhode Island’s incumbent federal officeholders – US Senator Jack Reed and US Representatives James Langevin and David Cicilline – are all heavy favorites to win reelection, and there’s little doubt that Democrat Joe Biden will defeat President Trump in this state, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea said she and many of her colleagues around the country fear that Americans might not realize that it’s possible they won’t know the winners on Election Night because of mail ballots.

“Historically, we have tried to hold elections that are fair, fast, and accurate,” Gorbea said. “Now you have a pandemic. So it’s about safety and security. The fast has to be for another election.”

Putting Rhode Island aside, imagine a scenario where the presidential race results in swing states like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania aren’t ready on Election Night. Will Trump or Biden have the discipline to tell their rabid supporters to trust the process?

Darrell M. West, the vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, said not having winners announced on Election Night runs the risk of undermining people’s confidence in the integrity of the election.

“People will worry that an unresolved election means fraud or malfeasance as opposed to understaffed states not able to process all the absentee ballots,” West said.

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Closer to home, candidates for local office won’t be flying completely in the dark. Smart campaigns monitor the number of mail ballot applications that are sent out and who they go to, and then they crosscheck the names with the names of their supporters.

But Joe Fleming, a veteran pollster who provides political analysis for WPRI Channel 12, said both campaigns and pundits have trouble calling races, especially in some of the Rhode Island House and Senate districts that could see more than 50 percent of people vote by mail.

“We’re going to have to be very careful about what we say,” Fleming said, referring to his commentary on Election Night.

Fleming said he does expect some outcomes to be clear for both the primary and general elections. If, for example, a candidate wins by a wide margin at the polls, he said it’s unlikely that mail ballot results will completely reverse those outcomes.

Fleming said he’s keeping a close eye on the Aug. 18 mail ballot application deadline before the primary because that will be an indicator on the size of turnout. Without any major races on the ballot, most candidates are expecting lower turnout with the possible exception of Cranston, which has both a Democratic and Republican mayoral primary.

Turnout is expected to be much higher in the general election because of the presidential race, especially if the state decides to send mail ballot applications to all voters.

Either way, every “what are ya hearing” message is almost certainly going to come with a follow-up question this year:

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“How many mail ballots are in that race?”


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.