UPDATE: Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo signed an executive order on March 23 to delay “the Rhode Island primary election to June 2, 2020 and prepare Rhode Island for a predominantly mail ballot election.”
“Citizens should not have to choose between the right to vote and their lives.”
The emerging threat of COVID-19 has conditioned many Americans to steer away from what was once common behavior. We have been told to avoid touching common surfaces, congregating in groups, and leaving our homes. Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo has taken many steps to curb the spread of COVID-19, including telling all residents of the state to scrap any gatherings of 10 people or more. However, a large public event, one that attracted nearly 200,000 people in 2016, has not been affected by these measures: the April 28 Presidential primary election.
We need not look far to see the potential consequences of our current course. On March 17, Illinois, Florida, and Arizona held primary elections in defiance of health expert advice. These sickness saturated elections, which a spokesperson for Chicago Board of Election Commissioners called a “curse,” not only saw massive reductions in voter turnout from 2016 (including a 25 percent decrease in Illinois), but put millions of people at risk as they poured into crowded polling places to touch the same papers, pens, screens, tables, booths, and door handles. Some precincts became overcrowded petri dishes, and forced elderly voters to wait in line side by side. Many were shuttered because of staffing shortages, and others, while open, did not have any of their required materials. Going forward with these elections was reckless, and shows little regard for the safety of voters or access to the ballot. Rhode Island should learn from this debacle and approach its elections with care.
By April 28, COVID-19 could be even more widespread, and postponing the Rhode Island primary is an essential step that is in the interest of both public health and political participation. Last week, the Rhode Island Board of Elections recommended that Rhode Island follow seven other states in delaying its primary in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Board’s executive director, Robert Rapoza, noted that only five out of 27 Rhode Island towns and cities surveyed favored proceeding with elections as planned. Despite this, the decision ultimately lies with Governor Raimondo. Citizens should not have to choose between the right to vote and their lives. The Governor has the power to allow citizens to be engaged and protect them from a deadly pandemic. She should heed the advice of our election officials and use it.