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RI Board of Elections shuts down discussion of systemic racism in Woonsocket polling location change

“I don’t think we should be in the situation where we’re talking about systemic racism in this particular situation,” said Louis DeSimone Jr, Governor Raimondo’s recent appointment to the Rhode Island Board of Elections. “I have a problem with going off on this type of a dissertation. I have a real issue with it.”

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The Rhode Island Board of Elections (BOE) heard from a lawyer from the ACLU and elected representatives from the City of Woonsocket on Friday about a controversial change of a polling place, Fairmount Heights, located in a low-income community of color by the Woonsocket Board of Canvassers. The change, which was not well publicized, came to light on Thursday, exposing flaws in the way that decisions about polling places are made and the way in which local boards o canvassers notify voters and candidates.

See previous reporting on this here:

During the hearing, Woonsocket City Councilmember Alex Kithes began to make the point, following comments made by Rhode Island BOE member Dr Isadore Ramos, that the cavalier moving of polling places in low-income districts and districts composed of people of color is evidence of systemic racism and classism, whether intentional or not. This irritated boardmember Louis DeSimone Jr, who said he had a “real issue” with discussions of systemic racism in this context. Rhode Island BOE Chair Diane Mederos agreed with DeSimone.

To his credit, Councilmember Kithes did not back down on his point, and Rhode Island BOE member Jennifer Johnson also called for the inclusion of systemic racism in and discussions that may occur in the future to prevent these issues from happening again.

Louis DeSimone was recently added to the board by Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo., replacing Steve Erickson. DeSimone is a cousin to former State Representative and House Majority Leader John DeSimone, who currently serves as Woonsocket’s City Solicitor.

Below is all the video from the hearing:


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The first video is the opening of the meeting, role call and housekeeping:

ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Armando Batastini outlined what happened to the Rhode Island BOE. On June 16, 2020, said Attorney Batastini, the Woonsocket Board of Cancvassers (BOC) voted to move the polling place for voting district 4, Fairmount Heights, to a location outside of the voting district, Harris Elementary School. The school is roughly one mile from Fairmount Heights and located in voting district 3. The problem, contnued Attorney Batastini, is that the Woonsocket BOC did not come before the Rhode Island BOE as is required by law and seek approval for the move.

At the initial Woonsocket BOE meeting, said Attorney Batastini, “it does not appear that the Board of Canvassers discussed alternates and in fact it appears that the Board of canvassers did little, up until quite recently, to see if there were alternates within that voting district that could have served as a polling place.”

“We have some limited information that in October 2020 the Board of Canvassers revisited the issue and at that point did look at certain alternatives although it’s unclear what those alternatives were,” continued Attorney Batastini. “And we’ve provided the [Rhode Island BOE] with two potential alternatives that we understand could serve as polling places but given the late nature of the letter to the board we think that it’s not advisable to change the location of a polling place on a Friday before a Tuesday election. That would only serve to cause more confusion, not less…

“Most problematically, [the Woonsocket BOC] sent notices of the change in polling place after the mail-in ballot application was due. So for those people in polling district 4 who don’t have an ability to get to the polling place, they’ve been denied an opportunity to submit an application for a mail ballot and it’s unclear what list Woonsocket used when it sent out these notices. We’re getting anecdotal information that they used a list of “likely voters” whatever that means, as opposed to all registered voters in voting district 4 and one of the complainants we have will attest to the fact that she never received notice of the new polling place and only learned of the new polling place when she took it upon herself to go to the Secretary of State’s website.”

Michael Narducci, manager of the Woonsocket Board of Canvassers, said [see: video 3 below] that the Woonsocket BOC put together a list of “every registered active voter.” There were 2800 names on the list. “We had our vender go through the list and pull out households. So we sent a notification to every household where there’s a registered [active] voter. So instead of households getting five or six notices, they’re getting one notice.” That notice was sent out October 16. Early voting in Rhode Island started on October 14. The deadline to request a mail ballot was October 13. An ad was placed in the Valley Breeze on October 22 notifying people of the change as well.

As for remedies, Attorney Batastini realizes that the Rhode Island BOE will most likely take up the issue after the election, since it is too late to do anything right now. “Our concern is that we don’t want this to happen again.”

“Voting district 4 is one where the demographics are such that people have a tough time getting out to vote because it’s primarily non-white and low-income,” said Attorney Batastini, highlighting the systemic racism aspect of the issue. “As a result, changing polling places creates a real difficulty for the population of that area to vote.”

I covered some of what Michael Narducci, manager of the Woonsocket Board of Canvassers, said to the Rhode island BOE above.

“Our intent was not to disenfranchise anybody, we were just looking at a location that was accessible, large enough to handle the crowd,” said Narducci. “We feel that we did everything pertaining to the law.”

“I don’t believe that the City of Woonsocket had any ill intentions… I think the local board is within its rights to do this,” said Rhode Island BOE member Louis DeSimone Jr, adding that the Rhode Island BOE should look at promulgating rules for notifications of polling location changes.

Rhode Island BOE Vice Chairman Richard Pierce confirmed that the letter the Woonsocket BOC sent to the Rhode Island BOE specified that the polling place was changed to an out of district location.

One of the issues that bothered Rhode Island State Senator Melissa Murray (Democrat, District 24, North Smithfield, Woonsocket) the most was that “the notices were sent out after the application for mail ballots had already passed. That, to me, is problematic, particularly in this district where not everybody has the transportation access and ability to get to the polls. If they were planning on just walking to the election place on election day – It’s going to be 46 degrees out on that day.”

During this presidential election “a lot of voters are going to come out to vote that aren’t so-called active voters,” said Murray, adding that the polling place change being decided in August, “There should have been multiple notices that went out… As I’ve stated before, this is a large district of color.”

“I’m getting a feeling regarding the moving of polling places,” said Rhode Island BOE member Dr Isadore Ramos. “I’ve noticed now, on two or three occasions that we’ve discussed moving polling places, that they’re usually in an area where the people are poor, people of color, and we just move them.

“We have to find a way to make sure that we’re not inhibiting someone’s vote.

“There’s all kinds of ways to do it. And everybody can be kind, and everybody doesn’t mean to do it, but it always happens, and who does it happen to?” asked Dr Ramos. “I’m really going to be looking at this from now on.”

“Do you think the law should be changed so that when a Board of Canvassers changes the voting stations that the stakeholders, namely the elected officials and the candidates and the parties, the committees, receive notices directly from the Board of Canvassers so that you have a chance to show up at the meeting to express you opinion?” asked Rhode Island BOE member David Sholes.

“Absolutely,” answered Senator Murray. “I can tell you I personally spoke to three different candidates who are running for a state rep seat two others that are running for council that have been canvassing that neighborhood very heavily in the last two weeks and I can tell you that in their going door-to-door while canvassing not a single person had raised this issue. And part of [the candidate’s] spiel… is to ask people ‘Do you know where your polling place is?’ And they were asking this and telling people that their polling place was Fairmount Manor, because nobody knew.”

“I’m running unopposed,” added Murray, “so this isn’t about my race, it’s about equity.”

Noting that this issue has come up several times in the last month, boardmember Louis DeSimone Jr suggested the Rhode Island BOE create a checklist for local Boards of Canvassers to use when evaluating potential polling places.

“I want to… highlight the points that Dr Ramos made,” said Woonsocket City Councilmember Alex Kithes. “I think that’s a really important point. It seems like every single time this happens it’s the poorest districts and the most racially diverse districts. It may never be deliberately targeted that way, but, as a representative of this city, I have seen an undertone, a political view of ‘certain people don’t vote so we don’t need to make provisions on their behalf.’ And that’s not okay. I’m not ascribing that blame necessarily to the people that made the decision of course, I haven’t spoken to them directly, however I think it’s important that the sum total of this happening over and over and over is systemic racism, systemic classism. It’s voter disenfranchisement…”

“Madam Chair, I’m going to interrupt at this point,” said Rhode Island BOE member Louis DeSimone Jr. “I sat on a local board for about ten years. Local boards are understaffed, undermanned – They don’t have the wherewithal nor the guidance that they should have reviewing what the law requires. Certainly, I don’t think we should be in the situation where we’re talking about systemic racism in this particular situation. We don’t even have the facts before us from the Woonsocket Board, so…

“I agree,” said Chair Diane Mederos.

“I have a problem with going off on this type of a dissertation,” said DeSimone. “I have a real issue with it.”

“I think the councilman has made his point,” said Chair Mederos. “I think we understand what you’re trying to say. I think it has to be addressed and we will look at it after the election to make this a better process.”

“I agree,” said Kithes, “Up until the point that this is not systemic racism, which I disagree with strongly. I agree with Mr DeSimone that these boards are understaffed and sometimes it’s just about the capacity to dive deeply and figure out another convenient polling location for people in the precinct… Perhaps local boards should be expanded to include at least one member from every precinct. In Woonsocket that would be a large board, but that could have helped to avoid this situation… because if someone in the Fairmount district could have advocated on behalf of the district.”

“For me I think it’s both/and,” said boardmember Jennifer Johnson, pushing back slightly against DeSimone and Mederos. “I think it’s process, procedure, support of the local boards of canvassers and I think you really can’t separate systemic racism from anything that we’re talking about today.”

Boardmember William West emphasized that the Rhode Island BOE needs to create rules and regulations “so that people will not be disenfranchised whether it’s intentionally, unintentionally, whatever have you, so that it strikes a balance. We’re supposed to be the ones out front.”

“I would like to ask the board if they would clarify instructions to the Board of Canvassers of Woonsocket to make signage clear and available at the old polling place if it is not going to be used, indicating the new polling place that people should utilize,” said Cristin Langworthy, or the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. “And also ask if there are any resources that can be dedicated to providing rides or any other form of transportation for those who do not have transportation access and will end up at the wrong polling place. I understand the logistical complications there. I just want to put it before the board for their consideration.”

Chair Mederos said that as a matter of course the Rhode Island BOE does require the posting of notices at polling places not being utilized. “As far as the ride situation, I’m not sure who is able to provide that at this point,” said Mederos, but the Rhode Island BOE took no action on that idea.

The discussion on Woonsocket ended, the Rhode Island BOE moved onto approving all of the polling places arranged by local boards of canvassers in the state, including the Fairmount Heights change.