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Are election reforms on the horizon in Rhode Island?

Raymond Baccari


Image via Tara Winstead/Pexels

During this time of the year, a number of bills are introduced in Rhode Island’s General Assembly. This year’s session, so far, saw several pieces of legislation introduced that would bring changes to Rhode Island’s elections, whether it be how they are run or who can vote.

Recently, a Senate commission was created with the goal of studying both non-plurality voting and runoff elections for elected offices in Rhode Island. This legislation was introduced by State Sen. Sam Zurier (D-Dist. 3).

“The concept of majority rule is at the core of our democratic institutions,” Zurier said Friday in a press release. “When I was elected in the primary by a modest plurality, supporters of the other Democratic candidates questioned whether the result truly reflected the preference of the greatest number of voters. I saw first-hand how our current plurality voting system does not always instill as much voter confidence in the outcome of elections as we might desire.”

This bi-partisan commission will consist of Zurier, State Sen. Leonidas Raptakis (D-Dist. 33), State Sen. Anthony DeLuca (R-Dist. 29), Secretary of State Gregg Amore or his designee, Cranston Registrar/Director of Elections Nick Lima, Coventry Board of Canvassers Clerk Lori Anderson and a member from the Board of Elections who still needs to be appointed.

The current plan for this commission, which also happens to have two alumni of RIC on it, Lima and Raptakis, is expected to present its findings by Oct. 31.

This topic hits close to home for Zurier since in the 2021 special election he referenced, the senator won a five-candidate primary with 31.2% of the vote.

The idea of non-plurality voting, also known as ranked choice voting, has garnered steam throughout the country. Maine and Alaska are two states that have recently implemented this electoral reform, with Alaska doing a hybrid that includes a runoff election system. In Rhode Island, two of the last four gubernatorial elections, 2010 and 2014, were decided with the winning candidate winning less than 50% of the vote, which proponents argue that those winners didn’t receive voters’ mandate. This past September in Rhode Island’s Democratic primary for governor, Gov. Dan McKee narrowly won with 32.8% of the votes.

Critics argue that ranked choice voting will over-complicate and make the process of counting votes take longer. Elections they cite include 2021’s New York City Mayoral election and the 2022 special election for the then-vacant at-large congressional district in Alaska.

On the House side, State Rep. Rebecca Kislak plans to introduce legislation to implement ranked choice voting. In a way to bring more awareness on the topic, Kislak is holding a chocolate election on Valentine’s Day, where attendees can eat chocolate, hold a mock ranked choice voting-styled election and learn more about the proposed reform.

The other electoral reform this commission will study is runoff elections. This is famously done in the state of Georgia, which they first implemented in 1964, and other states such as California and Louisiana. This system is done in two ways. The first is all Democratic and Republican candidates are on one primary election ballot, and the top two vote-getter candidates move on to the general election. The second is that all the parties’ primary elections have the chance of going to a runoff election if no candidate receives 50% or more of the votes, which are called “jungle primaries.” Georgia does the latter, while California and Louisiana do the former.

Proponents of runoff elections circle their argument back to getting a mandate from voters. Critics argue voters may be politically fatigued, which lowers turnout in a runoff election, and that a whole political party’s candidates could be locked out of a general election as it happens sometimes to Democrats in Louisiana and Republicans in California. Locked out in this context means the top two vote-getters are members of the same party, meaning it could be either a Democrat vs Democrat or Republican vs Republican.

It remains to be seen whether these systems will be implemented in Rhode Island.

Other legislation introduced so far relates more to voters. One bill, H 5055, would allow those who are 17-years-old to vote in a primary election so long as they are 18 by the general election. This bill has a Senate version, also known as S 0035.

A different bill introduced, S 0115, would introduce open primaries, which allows voters who aren’t Republicans or Democrats to vote in a primary election without having to affiliate with said party. Currently, the Secretary of State’s website says 45% of Rhode Island’s registered voters are unaffiliated.

Legislation introduced by State Rep. Enrique Sanchez (D-Dist. 9), H 5461, would let immigrants lacking permanent legal status vote in municipal elections after living in Rhode Island for just 30 days.

Two more bills focus on the elected offices themselves. H 5234 would impose a five-year residency requirement for candidates running for any of the five statewide offices. Lastly, H 5126 would create a term limit of three, four-year terms for Rhode Island’s state legislators.

All six bills have currently been referred to their respective committees.


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