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While Rhode Island GOP Chairwoman Sue Cienki is warning of “devastating” consequences from expanded use of voting by mail, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea has accused Cienki of perpetrating inaccuracies about what she considers a sound approach for use during the pandemic.

In a letter to Cienki dated Friday, Gorbea took issue with how an RI GOP email sent last week encourages voters to photograph mail ballots sent to a wrong or undeliverable address and then email the GOP with an explanation of “why it’s an illegitimate ballot.”

“As an aside, let me point out that your ‘illegitimate ballot’ comment is a gross mistake and shows an unfortunate lack of knowledge of the voting process established for the June 2nd primary,” Gorbea wrote to Cienki. “The mailing voters have received is not a ballot, but an application for a ballot to be mailed to the voter.”

Cienki faulted Gorbea for not including on the mail ballot application instructions on what to do about an application sent to someone who no longer lives at a particular address.

"The RIGOP has only encouraged voters to document in some way the erroneous mail ballot applications they received, in order to demonstrate to the secretary of state that there are errors on our state’s voter rolls," Cienki tells The Public's Radio via email.

Rhode Island’s presidential primary was pushed back to June 2 because of the pandemic.

Gorbea said this change protects the health of voters and the democratic process.

In her email last week, Cienki warned of the consequences of voting by mail.

“While it may not seem to be a big deal to use mail ballots during a pandemic, the implications of this can be devastating,” she wrote.

While the presidential race is set to feature Democrat Joe Biden’s challenge to Republican President Donald Trump, Cienki wrote, voting by mail “is conditioning voters to accept this type of voting as ‘normal.’ It is not normal. It is also setting a precedent that if there is no push back, this will become the ‘new normal.’ ”

Cienki continued: “When the fall elections come around, the opportunity for election abuse and voter fraud will be huge, and will literally change the outcome of elections all the way from town council, General Assembly, General officers, even Congress.”

In her letter to Cienki, Gorbea rejected these concerns.

The Democratic secretary of state said that mail ballot applications must be returned, and the signature of the register voter verified, before a ballot is sent to a voter.

Gorbea said returning to her office mail ballot applications sent to a wrong address is an important part of updating the state’s voter rolls.

“Simply taking a picture and sending it to you does nothing to achieve this goal,” Gorbea writes. “Sending a statewide mailing such as the one we are doing for the Presidential Preference Primary, funded through federal monies, has a great added benefit of helping us clean up the voter rolls. The last time Rhode Island was able to afford a statewide elections mailing of this kind was in 2006 under the Help America Vote Act.”

Cienki and Gorbea also sparred over the state’s voter rolls.

According to Cienki: “Right now, Rhode Island has approximately 244,000 more registered voters than it does people according to US Census Bureau numbers. We have been hearing from people who got ballot applications in the mail for family members or former family members who have not lived at that address (or even in this state) for more than 2 decades, and in some cases are deceased. These mail ballots - especially with the elimination of the notary public and/or dual signature verification process, can be fraudulently filled out and can be tendered on behalf of dead people and/or people who are living, and have been voting in another state for 30 years.”

Cienki said she believes Gorbea should have done more during her time in office to update the state's voter rolls.

In her letter to the GOP chair, Gorbea writes: “[T]he Census does not say Rhode Island has more registered voters than people. The Census Bureau ‘estimates’ that there should be fewer Rhode Island registered voters than there are on our voter rolls. This Census estimate is consistently similar in states across the country. What’s more, the Census Bureau notes the following, ‘In general, administrative/official estimates often differ from estimates based on responses to the Voting and Registration Supplement due to error in both sources. Therefore, data users should use caution when comparing supplement estimates to official ones.’ "

This report has been updated.