Something to Watch During the General Election: Mail Ballots

Given the weakness of his political results during the primary campaign, rumblings about Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello’s future have begun.  Of course, policies and ideology are important pieces, here.  Progressives wouldn’t be going after him if he were as radical as they are.  Still, my cynicism can’t help but bubble through in the question of whether crass political mechanisms might not be a more immediately significant factor.

Until very recently, the speaker of the house could give legislators a means of cashing in on their positions, by allowing them to pass selected legislation, while helping them to buy votes with legislative grants and then covering any remaining electoral gap with the magic of party endorsement and a master lever, so lazy voters could hand over their autonomy to party bosses in the same way that legislators have handed over theirs to leadership.  To be sure, the first two pillars mentioned above are still standing, but the master lever is gone, and the speaker came up a pitiful 120 votes short of knocking out a political annoyance in Providence when Moira Walsh held on to her seat with a mere 639 votes.

As the master lever fades into memory, however, a new margin-clincher is coming into its own:  mail ballots.  That was enough for Mattiello to reverse his in-person-vote loss to Republican Steve Frias two years ago, but it didn’t work out for Walsh’s opponent, Michael Earnheart.  In mail ballots, Earnheart won two-to-one or, more specifically, 75 to 32.  He needed 195.

This shortfall, however, does not prove that the new mechanism for cheating is insufficient.  Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo won her primary with 57% of the total vote, but 66% of mail ballots.  Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee narrowly defeated progressive challenger Aaron Regunberg with 51% of the vote, but he won 58% of mail ballots.  Out of McKee’s 2,402-vote margin of victory, 1,023 (43%) came from his advantage in mail ballots, even though mail ballots accounted for just 5% of the total vote.  These votes could make all the difference come November.

The public has no insight into the ways in which notary publics who are paid to manufacture mail ballot votes are instructed which candidates are preferred, but if somebody else — Gina Raimondo, say, with her unprecedented millions in campaign resources — controls that spigot, Mattiello could be in trouble.

And not just Mattiello.  Among the Republicans running for governor, the mail ballot tally is pretty close to the in-person tally.  Moreover, Republican mail ballots accounted for 3.5% of their total vote in the governor’s race, compared with 5.7% on the Democrat side — and that’s with anecdotal evidence that some number of in-person voters who would normally vote Republican switched over to vote in the Democrat primary.

Mail ballots are going to be a key detail to watch in November.  It was one thing for Mattiello to pull victory out of a hat with mail ballots two years ago, but he’s running in just one of Rhode Island’s 75 House districts, and voters are savvier now.  If Governor Raimondo is able to win reelection purely on the basis of yet another spoiler candidate (Joe Trillo) and an unprecedented flood of mail ballots, an already cynical public may begin to question the legitimacy of our electoral system.

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