Politics and pictures: Rhode Island and its new voter ID law

In elections past, Rhode Island has not required photo identification for a ballot to be counted. However, with the passage of a new law the state has at least superficially joined the ranks of states which have approved legislation that will hamper the voting rights of its most vulnerable citizens. Yet the truth may not be so simple. Rhode Island’s law is less restrictive and more benign than legislation passed by other states which may explain the unique politics behind the passage of RI’s new photo identification bill.

The law will be implemented in two stages. “The first stage will require non-photo ID beginning Jan. 1, 2012. The second stage will require photo ID beginning Jan. 1, 2014.”

For the upcoming 2012 election, voters are able to vote by establishing their identity through possession of forms of ID that do not have their photo, “including without limitation”: a birth certificate, social security card, or government-issued medical card. The language “without limitation” can reasonably be construed as meaning that “any current photo identification that includes the name and photograph of the voter will be accepted.”

Likewise, “if the person claiming to be a registered and eligible voter is unable to provide proof of identity as required, the person shall be allowed to vote a provisional ballot.” The local board then will examine these provisional ballots to “determine if the signature matches the signature on the voter’s registration.” If they do then the vote will count, if not—it won’t.  

Voters effected by the second stage of the law, which will take effect in the 2014 election, are required to show one of the following: “a Rhode Island driver’s license, Rhode Island voter ID card (i.e. new, free ID card for voters), U.S. passport, Photo ID from U.S. educational institution, U.S. military photo ID, any photo ID card issued by U.S. or Rhode Island, or Government-issued medical card  with photo.” No longer will voters be able to use birth certificates or social security cards as proof of identity.

The bill was signed by Governor Chaffee during the 4th of July weekend. Chaffee asserted that “[o]ne of our most cherished rights as Americans is the right to vote.” The Governor continued, “[t]hroughout our nation’s history, we have fought to ensure that no citizen be denied that right. Similarly, we have also worked to maintain confidence in our elections by enacting appropriate safeguards to prevent voter intimidation and fraud.” Chaffee also asserts that “believe that requiring identification at the polling place is a reasonable request to ensure the accuracy and integrity of our elections.”

Yet it was the Rhode Island Tea Party, not the Governor (a former Republican) or the Democrats who control both houses of the RI legislature, who first announced Chaffee’s signing of the bill. Many “traditional allies” of the Democratic Party are upset by its passage. Steven Brown, the executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU stated, “[a] lot of organizations are still smarting over it . . .  It was a tremendous disappointment.”

However, Democrats who supported the bill have pushed back forcefully. Senator Metts (D), a state senator and major proponent of the bill, asserts that “[a]s a minority citizen and a senior citizen [he] would not support anything that [he] thought would present obstacles or limit protections . . . [b]ut in this day and age, very few adults lack one of the forms of identification that will be accepted, and the rare person who does can get a free voter ID card from the Secretary of State.”

Metts continues, “[w]hile I’m sensitive to the concerns raised, at this point I am more interested in doing the right thing and stopping voter fraud. Hesitation based on potential ramifications of what may or may not happen at the expense of the integrity of the system is no longer an option.”

Other Democratic politicians are also supportive of the new law, although there are some rifts in the Democratic Party’s support. State Representative Jon Brien, the primary Democratic advocate of the bill, stated, “I think that party leaders have tried to make this a Republican versus Democrat issue. It’s not. It’s simply a good government issue…[w]e as representatives have a duty to the citizenry to ensure the integrity of our elections, and the requirement to show an ID will ensure that integrity.” Brien claims that members of his own party did not want him to not “move forward with his bill.”

Yet, it is an open question whether voter fraud is truly a problem or just a figment of conservative politicians’ imaginations as “[v]erified instances of voter fraud, especially the kind in which one voter impersonates another at the polls, are few and far between.” Brown, asserts that in Rhode Island “[a]pparently all these felonies are being committed in front of people . . . but no one is complaining about them except on the legislative floor.”

Rhode Island’s passage of the law has garnered national attention as it was “hailed by conservatives in testimony . . . before a U.S. Senate subcommittee examining new voter laws passed by state legislatures this year,” asserts Philip Marcelo, of the Providence Journal. This attention will probably only grow as the 2012 elections approach.

While Rhode Island may be the nation’s smallest state, it may serve as a harbinger of the future of voter ID laws.

Student contributor from William and Mary Law School.

permalink: http://electls.blogs.wm.edu/2011/12/30/ri-voter-id

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