State weighs use of National Guard to handle mail-in ballot requests

An election worker handles vote-by-mail ballots. (Photo by JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)

Rhode Island's top elections official has proposed mobilizing the National Guard to help process what's expected to be an overwhelming number of mail-in ballot applications for November's general election from people concerned about heading to the polls during the coronavirus pandemic.

Local elections officials in Rhode Island — or Boards of Canvassers — were flooded with mail-in ballot applications for June’s primary, when a record 103,000 state residents voted by mail, said Nick Domings, a spokesman for Democratic Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea.

The state is expecting even more mail-in applications for the Nov. 3 presidential election.

“We have this expectation there is going to be increased demand in voting from home because of the pandemic, and the Boards of Canvassers are very concerned about their ability to handle that process," Gorbea said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

The Guard would be used in a purely clerical manner, checking mail-in applications against what is on file for voters in the state’s centralized voter database. Guard members would have the ability to approve a mail ballot application if the voter information and signature match what’s on file with the voter’s registration. But they could not reject an application — that has to be done by the local Board of Canvassers.

“They are not going to come near an actual ballot," Gorbea said.

The idea to employ the National Guard stemmed from meetings with local elections officials after the primary who said there was no way they'd be able to handle all the mail-in applications for the November elections, Domings said.

Using the National Guard in such a manner is just an extension of the way it has already been mobilized during the pandemic, Gorbea said.

The Guard members are trustworthy, already have cybersecurity training and clearance, can maintain a high level of attention to detail even in high-stress situations, and can scale up operations at short notice if there is a late surge in applications, Gorbea said.

Any use of the National Guard would have to be approved by Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo.

“The Secretary of State sent our office a proposal Friday that we are in the process of reviewing with the National Guard," Raimondo spokesperson Audrey Lucas said in an emailed statement Tuesday.

Cranston, with about 58,000 registered voters, received nearly 12,000 mail-in ballot applications for the June primary, and could receive three times that for the general election, said Nick Lima, the city's registrar and director of elections within the Canvassing Department.

“We're just not equipped to handle a massive mail-in ballot application process," he said, noting the office has just three full-time and one part-time employee.

Normally, each city and town handles its own mail-in ballot applications, but having the National Guard handle them in a centralized location will free up the elections department for other election day necessities, including opening polling places and training poll workers, he said.

While the National Guard has been used to staff polling stations in some states, including Wisconsin and New Jersey, Domings said he is not aware of any other state using the Guard the way Gorbea proposes.