BURRILLVILLE – In a year where a pandemic has made the normal nomination process something of a controversy, Burrillville candidates made a push this week to gather the signatures needed to run for office at several drive-thru events.

The Burrillville Democratic Town Committee held two drive-thru signature gathering drives this week, events that brought out candidates from a variety of offices, including the school committee, town council, a state district office and federal offices.

“These are unusual and often difficult times and that means we need to think outside the box,” said Kathan Lambert, chair of the BDTC.

The events were adapted to replace the traditional door knocking and one-on-one meetings that normally allow candidates to gather signatures in an election season. Candidates are required to submit their nomination forms no later than 4 p.m. on Friday, July 10,  with valid signature of 50 registered voters for local town offices, 100 for states offices or 500 for federal office.

It’s a process that has become something of a controversy in the state as COVID-19 limits the desire for close contact.

“The devastating impact of the coronavirus has brought about a lot of change during special and primary elections all over the US and that includes the nomination process to get candidates on the ballot here in Rhode Island,” noted a release from the BDTC.

Candidates regionally, including Woonsocket City Councilor Alexander Kithes, have questioned if the rules make sense at a time when activity across the state continues to be limited in hopes to curb the spread of the virus.  

“We are in the middle of a deadly global pandemic,” noted Kithes. “I see so many otherwise healthy people, friends on my Facebook and Twitter timelines, in Woonsocket and around Rhode Island, talking about their horrible, months-long experiences with COVID-19. My friends have had loved ones die from this disease. And a few selfish politicians are dead set on their ideological compulsion that the antiquated process of signature collection should still have been mandatory this election cycle – and are very much the same politicians who have spent months complaining like children about mail-in ballots.”

Woonsocket mayoral candidate Jon Brien, who says he gathered the 100 signatures needed for his campaign in less than four hours, offered a different perspective.

“Notwithstanding the difficulties that exist as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Brien for Mayor Campaign implemented the necessary safety protocols, while at the same time demonstrating that the campaign is a well organized machine that is ready to move forward in the election process,” noted a press release.

“We decided to make lemonade out of lemons,” Brien said.Nobody is happy about where the coronavirus has put all of us, but that is precisely when it is time to show that as a leader, you can adapt and think outside of the box.”

Brien noted that some candidates actually sued the state over the issue, a decision he called, “ridiculous.”

“The integrity of our elections can never be compromised, so we wanted to show the rest of the State how it’s done,” Brien said. 

In Burrillville, Paul Roselli, a candidate for state Senate District 23, noted that that some town halls had plans to cut short the limited time period allocated for signature gathering by closing at noon, rather than utilizing the state-mandated deadline of 4 p.m. on Friday.

“This may pose a problem with candidates who are still collecting signatures up to the 4 p.m. deadline mandated by the state Board of Elections.” wrote Roselli in a letter to the editor published this week. “Having that last few hours may not seem like a lot, but during this pandemic when many want to be engaged in the democratic process but find it challenging, those last few hours help.”

Others agreed, and the State Board of Elections and the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union reportedly reminded municipalities that they should remain open until 4 p.m.

As of Friday, July 10, the deadline for submissions, Burrillville town offices were scheduled to remain open until 4 p.m., while North Smithfield still had a noon closing planned.  

Members of the BDC said that they were hopeful the drive-thru events helped to ease the process.

“Candidates have substituted door knocking and one-on-one meetings to activities that are safer and less of a health threat to both the candidate and the voter,” the organization’s release state.

“We want to adhere to safe interactions, physical distancing measures and wearing face coverings. It’s the only way to make this process manageable and safe,” said Lambert. “The town responded well. All candidates were welcome.”

Voters drove up and stayed in their cars. Pens were sanitized before and after use, and the forms were handed to the voters in their vehicles.

“We made certain that very few people touched the forms and that we were able to get folks in and out as quickly as possible,” Lambert said .

On the question of if drive-thru events could become more normalized, Lambert said, “With all the talk of voter suppression in the news, political parties need to do more to encourage people to become involved in our election process and to find ways to make it easier for them to do so. Holding drive-thru signing events, open to all, is one way we can do this. The cornerstone of our democracy has always been an involved and informed electorate. Our new normal has to promote more participation and as Democrats, that is what we strive to do.”

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