When the state Board of Elections released the first round of results on Election Night, Democrat Joe Biden appeared to trail President Trump in Rhode Island.

But Biden was never really behind. The first batch of results only represented voters who went in person to their polling place on Election Day — about one-third of the votes that were already cast. After the results from early voting and mail voting trickled in, Biden easily prevailed in the state.

A record number of Rhode Islanders voted by mail this year, as COVID-19 raised concerns about the safety of in-person voting. In the 2016 presidential election, the Board of Elections processed about 40,000 mail ballots. This time, the mail-ballot total was four times greater.

John Marion, the executive director of the good government group Common Cause Rhode Island, said the partisan preference for certain methods of voting was also unprecedented.

“The last six months, with the president attacking the use of mail ballots, it really drove — both in Rhode Island, and it appears across the country — Republicans to vote in greater numbers on Election Day, and Democrats to vote by mail,” Marion said.

Democrats make up 44 percent of registered voters in Rhode Island. According to unofficial data from the Secretary of State’s office, they represented about 61 percent of the people who requested mail ballots in this year’s general election.

Marion said mail ballots’ tendency to lean blue is an “empirical phenomenon” that election officials could predict, so the wave of mail votes for Democrats didn’t raise any suspicions for him.

“Had the Board of Elections chosen to release the mail-ballot results first, it would have appeared that many Democrats had leads that were greater than their final margins,” he said.

Unsubstantiated and false fraud allegations continue to cloud the national election, with President Trump still refusing to concede. But in Rhode Island, Sue Cienki, the chairwoman of the state Republican Party, said she anticipated mail ballots would be more popular among Democrats.

Before mail-ballot results were released, Republican candidates had to be two and half times ahead of their Democratic opponents in order to be competitive, she said. But many Republican voters didn’t understand how the mail ballots could flip races.

“They had gone to sleep and the expectation was — this is going one way. And they woke up the next day and said, ‘Oh my god. These ballots were dumped at the last minute,’” Cienki said. “No. That was part of the process, and they didn’t understand that.”

Last Friday, roughly 100 Trump supporters gathered to protest outside the state Board of Elections headquarters in Cranston. The demonstrators demanded a recount, although there is no evidence of significant voter fraud in Rhode Island or elsewhere in the United States.

“People think that there are improprieties going on, when there may not be. And it’s because of the way that the three buckets fell this year and the way they released the information,” Cienki said. “It heightened concerns among people, and I don’t know how you alleviate their concerns at this point. The cat is already out of the bag.”

Cienki said state officials should discuss how to better communicate with voters and build trust in future elections — possibly by releasing in-person, early, and mail results at the same time.


Antonia Ayres-Brown can be reached at antonia@thepublicsradio.org