Political Scene: Earlier primary date will cost municipal election budgets

Providence Journal |

Happy Labor Day! Now get to work.

It's a scenario elections officials across Rhode Island are trying to avoid next year since lawmakers passed, and Gov. Gina Raimondo last week signed, a bill moving the state's primary date up a week. In 2020, the earlier date means opening the polls , the day after .

The move was designed to meet federal elections deadlines while avoiding the bigger changes sought by Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and good government groups who wanted to move the primary into August.

But before the polls can open on any , workers spend the previous day setting up voting booths and preparing polling places.

If they have to do that on a state holiday, such as , that would mean holiday or overtime pay, straining the election budgets of cities and towns.

"When the General Assembly passed this bill, there wasn't a comprehension of what happens the day before an election for it to be successful," said Cranston Registrar Nick Lima. "We have 30 polling locations and, assuming they are all open, we have two city work crews who set up. Our office would have to be open to make sure the polling locations have the supplies they need. And it could be difficult to find staff on ."

All told, Lima estimates holding the primary the day after would cost Cranston between $12,000 and $15,000.

Proportional impacts are expected across the state.

Little Compton: $2,000-$2,500 in added costs, per Town Clerk Carol Wordell.

Providence: Around $25,000.

So cities and towns are asking lawmakers to move the primary date again -- this time just one day, from to .

The Rhode Island Town and City Clerks Association discussed the issue last month. "The consensus was we needed to convince the legislature that having it on the 8th would not be in the best interest of constituents," said Wordell, the association's chairwoman.

She said the clerks expect to work with the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns to request legislation, possibly as early as this fall when the General Assembly plans to return for a special session to vet a contract extension for lottery operator IGT.

"I think the sooner we can address it the better," said Brian Daniels, executive director of the League of Cities and Towns. "I don't know what the conditions would be for a fall session. If that is an opportunity we might try to raise it at that time."

State Board of Elections Executive Director Robert Rapoza said a day-after- primary should not result in additional costs at his agency and the Board has not yet taken a position on it.

"My own personal opinion is it would probably be better for cities and towns if it were on Wednesday," Rapoza said.

After lawmakers rejected her proposal to move the primary to August, Secretary of State Gorbea suggested they at least move the 2020 vote away from .

"I was disappointed that the General Assembly's final legislation did not include my recommendation to move Primary Day to Wednesday in years like 2020, when Primary Day falls on the Tuesday after ," Gorbea wrote in an email. "I am concerned that without my proposed amendment, cities and towns will have higher election costs and a more difficult time finding poll workers in years when Primary Day falls on the Tuesday after ."

Gorbea spokesman Nick Domings said the secretary of state's office is still looking into whether requesting legislation this fall is an option.

It likely won't be.

Both Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said they would consider a primary bill "in January."

The need to potentially move the primary date again rankles many Rhode Island elections watchers since some lawmakers had been pushing a summer primary date along with other changes, such as early voting.

"The General Assembly averted one crisis by moving the primary election up one week, but they created a series of other problems in doing so," said Common Cause Rhode Island Executive Director John Marion. "Now cities and towns will face additional costs preparing for an election over a holiday weekend and school districts won't get relief from the need to close that would have come from moving the primary to August."

Opponents of a summer primary cite continuity, tradition and concern that voters aren't paying attention during the popular vacation and quahogging months.

Marion sees incumbent protection as the true motivation.

"Legislators are worried that any changes to election administration that might result in different voters turning out will threaten them," Marion said. "I believe that is why early voting did not pass, and likely why they were unwilling to move the primary to August, despite all of the evidence that it is better for voters, election administrators, cities and towns, and school districts."

Hiring big guns

The two gambling titans in the fight for Rhode Island's gambling contracts are staffing up.

Lottery giant IGT last week added former state Democratic Party Chairman William Lynch and two other familiar State House faces -- Gayle Wolf and Erich Haslehurst -- to its lobbying team.

For IGT, which needs to win legislative approval for the 20-year, no-bid contract extension it negotiated with Governor Raimondo, the team now includes:

Former IGT Chairman Donald Sweitzer, the current treasurer of the Democratic Governors Association chaired by Governor Raimondo; IGT executives Jay Gendron, the COO for Lotteries, and Mike Mello, VP for government communications; one-time Senate Minority Leader Robert Goldberg; one-time Providence Councilman Andrew Annaldo; former Rep. Kevin Horan, Peter Baptista, Haslehurst, Wolf and Lynch, who from time to time pops up as the state Democratic Party's attack dog.

FWIW: IGT executives and employees have given more than $48,000 in political donations to R.I. office-holders and candidates since 2013, from the governor ($9,260) and current House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello ($9,000) on down to freshman Rep. Liana Cassar ($150) during her 2018 run for the House.

A single executive -- Sweitzer -- gave $12,900 to R.I. politicos during that period; Gendron $5,750, Mello $3,750 and current IGT Chairman Robert Vincent, $1,000.

The Twin River lobbying team includes former House Speaker William Murphy (Dome Consulting), former House Majority Leader George Caruolo; former Senator, Traffic Court Magistrate and Raimondo legislative director David Cruise; former House Majority Whip Christopher Boyle; Twin River executives Marc Crisafulli, John Taylor, Craig Eaton, George Papanier and Daniel Ryan; and former Journal exec Mark Ryan (Westminster Consulting).

Since 2013, Twin River executives and employees have contributed more than $153,439 to R.I. politicos, including Raimondo ($19,150), Mattiello ($29,775) and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio ($17,275).

Taylor, the executive chairman of the Twin River Board, alone gave $10,600 during that six-and-a-half-year span; Papanier, the president and CEO, $17,600, and Eaton, the executive VP, $20,350.

Pans and praise

For Governor Raimondo, last week was the best of times and the worst of times. New York Times opinion columnist Thomas Friedman called Raimondo "My kind of Democrat,'' while lamenting the "Revolution now'' politics of the left that could get Donald Trump reelected.

But the latest Morning Consult poll rated her as the 2nd most unpopular governor in the country, with a 38 percent approval rating (compared to 73 percent for Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker). This time a year ago, 44 percent gave Raimondo a thumbs up.

And a commentator for the news syndicate Insidesources.com posted an unflattering story headlined: "Is R.I. Governor Putting Political Ambitions Ahead of Taxpayers in No-Bid Lottery Deal?" It begins: "The story sounds like an episode of the TV show "Scandal": A governor with close ties to a lottery company secretly negotiates a no-bid, twenty-year, $1 billion contract, while the company's former chairman works as her top fundraiser."

Splitting their vote

Rhode Island Congressmen David Cicilline and James Langevin were in the majority that voted 240-187 last week for a resolution "condemning President Trump's racist comments directed at Members of Congress.''

"This is not the first time, and I fear it won't be the last, that he has used ugly, racist language to attack people who disagree with him and his policies,'' said Cicilline. "These intolerant and xenophobic remarks only promote fear, legitimize hatred, and serve to further divide our nation. I strongly condemn them,'' echoed Langevin.

But they split on Texas Democrat Al Green's latest attempt to open an impeachment inquiry into Trump, with Langevin voting for -- and Cicilline against -- a successful motion to table the resolution.

Hopefuls raise cash

The 2020 presidential candidates aren't campaigning in Rhode Island, but they're raising money here.

Ocean State donors gave the flock of Democrats seeking their party's nomination and the president about $98,000 from March to June, according to second quarter filings with the Federal Elections Commission.

South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, notably popular in Providence City Hall, led the pack:

Buttigieg: $38,317; Elizabeth Warren: $34,132; Bernie Sanders: $17,581; Julián Castro: $11,511; Joe Biden: $10,288; Trump: $7,868; Beto O'Rourke: $6,535; Kamala Harris: $5,271; Cory Booker: $2,770; Jay Inslee: $3,500; Andrew Yang: $2,770; John Hickenlooper: $1,500; John Delaney: $1,100; Tulsi Gabbard: $813; Amy Klobuchar: $720; Marianne Williamson: $17.

___

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