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1995 No Action
July 7, 1997
TO THE HONORABLE, THE SENATE:
In accordance with the provisions of § 43-1-4 of the General Laws, I am transmitting herewith, with my disapproval, 97-S 1042, As Amended, "An Act Relating to Elections - State Board of Elections."
This Act seeks to expand those individuals who may qualify to serve as members of the state Board of Elections. Under existing law, no public official or public employee may serve on the Board of Elections. R.I. Gen. Laws § 17-7-2. While the language of the Act is unclear, the legislation appears to seek to permit public employees to serve on the Elections Board except for "employees of persons who hold state wide public office." The Act would apply retroactively to June 1, 1994.
The Board of Elections clearly performs a fundamental role in our democratic process by supervising the manner in which our elected officials are chosen. "[T]he independence and impartiality of the members of the board in the conduct of official duties ... are so important and necessary to the full, free and effective exercise by the people of the electoral franchise." In re Opinion of the Justices, 67 R.I. 197, 21 A.2d 267, 270 (1941). The General Assembly recognized these values in requiring that the Elections Board be "independent of every other department and agency of this state," and that the Board members be persons of "outstanding honesty and ability." R.I. Gen. Laws § 17-7-2. Similarly, public officials and public employees were disqualified from serving as Board members undoubtedly to preserve the independent nature of the Board. Certainly, there is a legitimate state interest in excluding public officials and employees given the threat that those who "either directly or indirectly are working for a political entity, may be tempted to perpetuate their friends in power." Pogany v. Medeiros, 847 F.Supp. 10, 11 (D.R.L 1994).
By allowing all federal, state, and local public employees (except those employed by statewide officeholders) to serve as members of the Elections Board, the Act severely undermines the independence of the Board. In fact, if the Act were to become law, § 17-7-2 would be internally inconsistent in requiring that the Board be "independent of every other [state] department and agency," yet allowing department or agency employees, including department or agency heads, to serve as Board members.
Moreover, the distinction between employees of statewide officeholders, who are disqualified from serving as Board members, and all other public employees, who would now qualify under the Act, is most likely unconstitutional. There does not appear to be any rational basis for discriminating against employees of statewide officeholders with respect to service on the Board of Elections.
Lastly, the Act appears to address a situation involving a single individual presently serving on the Board of Elections. The Attorney General has filed a petition in the Rhode Island Supreme Court to determine whether Raymond Xavier, a Narragansett public employee, may continue to serve as a member of the Board of Elections. The Supreme Court has issued an Order for Xavier to show cause why he should not be disqualified from serving on the Board. Pine v. Xavier, No. 96-459-M.P. (R.I. Supreme Ct. Oct. 3, 1996). It would be more prudent to await final action by the Supreme Court than to preempt the Court's ruling. Legislation to advantage one person often leads to bad public policy.
For the foregoing reasons, I disapprove of this legislation and respectfully urge your support of this veto.