Angering Their Own Party, Rhode Island Democrats Approve Voter ID

Rhode Island Secretary of State
Rhode Island Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis, a Democrat, led a drive to make voters in his state provide documents proving their identity.

Should voters be required to show photo identification at the polls? For years, the question has amounted to a demarcation line between Republicans and Democrats. 

The 2011 legislative year was shaping up to be no different . Republicans seized on their sweeping electoral victories last November by enacting photo ID laws in Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin, arguing that tougher rules are necessary to fight election fraud. Democratic governors in five other states — Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire and North Carolina — vetoed similar bills that their Republican legislatures passed, calling them an unfair burden on disadvantaged voters, chiefly minorities and senior citizens, who may not have driver's licenses or other forms of government-issued ID. Behind the policy dispute are important political calculations, since Democrats claim that their supporters would be most of the people turned aside at the polls and that whole elections could hang in the balance.

Amid all the partisan sniping, however, is a little-noticed new law approved by the nation's smallest state — Rhode Island — that has turned the voter ID debate upside down. There, it was majority Democrats who bucked their own party's national leadership — as well as traditional allies including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — by passing a photo ID requirement of their own. Lawmakers approved the measure on the hectic final day of the legislative session, and independent Governor Lincoln Chafee signed it into law without fanfare on July 2. 

It wasn't until days later, when the Rhode Island Tea Party issued a statement praising Chafee and the legislature, that many progressive advocates realized the photo ID measure had become law. When they did, they were stunned and angry, and began to wonder the same thing photo ID opponents around the country are also now wondering: How could a liberal, urban state that is firmly in Democratic hands approve a voting law that Democrats in almost every other state — and at the national level — have blasted as modern-day disenfranchisement of minorities and the poor?

"A lot of organizations are still smarting over it," says Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU. "It was a tremendous disappointment." 

But if Rhode Island Democrats upset some of their traditional allies by approving photo ID rules, they are not remorseful about it. Instead, they are proudly standing behind their legislation, saying that they were motivated by common sense over party loyalty and that Democrats in other states may want to pay attention.

"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," says state Representative Jon Brien, the Democratic sponsor of the legislation, who says he was pressured by the Rhode Island Democratic Party not to move forward with his bill. "We 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." 

"Those who are opposed to voter ID," Brien adds, "never let the facts get in the way of a really good emotional argument."

What are the facts?

The truth can be hard to ascertain in the long-running battle over voter ID. On both sides, the argument is long on accusations but short on irrefutable evidence.

Verified instances of voter fraud, especially the kind in which one voter impersonates another at the polls, are few and far between. That undermines the core Republican argument that photo ID laws are necessary to handle a widespread problem, and has led Democrats to denounce such laws as a "solution without a problem." When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Indiana's photo ID law in 2008 , it noted that "the record contains no evidence of any such fraud actually occurring in Indiana at any time in its history."

In Rhode Island, lawmakers seemed to be the only ones talking about election fraud, says Brown, the ACLU director. "Apparently all these felonies are being committed in front of people," he says, "but no one is complaining about them except on the legislative floor."

At the same time, it is difficult to say with certainty that voter disenfranchisement takes place when photo ID is required, as Democrats insist and as several academic studies contend .

Part of the problem is that the last presidential election to take place after many state photo ID laws went into effect — Barack Obama's victory in 2008 — saw huge turnout among minorities, whom critics said the law would disenfranchise. While Democrats note that election of the nation's first African-American president would predictably lead to a surge in minority turnout, Republicans say that very same high turnout undermines the argument against photo ID. They point to states like Georgia, which had a strict photo ID measure in place in 2008, but nevertheless saw huge participation among African-Americans.

Rhode Island rebuttal

Backers of Rhode Island's new law are happy to address each of the common Democratic talking points against it head-on. Brien, the sponsor, notes that his bill won the backing of legislators who ostensibly would stand to lose the most from photo ID. They include Harold Metts, the legislation's chief backer in the state Senate, who is both African-American and a senior citizen.

As for being a "solution without a problem," Rhode Island Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis, a Democrat, says he would rather have Rhode Island's law described that way than the other way around. "I think solutions without problems are the best laws," Mollis says. "We should be providing solutions before problems happen, not after."

There are rumors around the state capitol in Providence that the photo ID legislation may have found success this year for complicated political reasons, including, under one scenario, that African-American legislators were trying to preserve their own seats in rapidly growing Hispanic districts. By approving photo ID legislation, some political analysts theorized, black legislators were hoping to freeze out immigrants who may not have proper identification to vote.

Brien bluntly rejects those assertions, noting that he and Mollis have been pushing photo ID legislation since 2006. "None of it could be further from the truth," he says. "This was never designed in any way to pit anyone against anyone else."

Will partisanship fade elsewhere?

Rhode Island's approval of photo ID rules is an uncomfortable development for Democrats in other states. The Democratic National Committee, in particular, has attacked such measures as " unnecessary and suppressive ." Neither the DNC nor the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee returned Stateline calls for comment.

Meanwhile, in Republican-led states that are still considering photo ID legislation, the Rhode Island law is sure to provide fodder for the GOP as it seeks to build momentum for its own proposals. Ohio and Pennsylvania — two huge political swing states controlled entirely by Republicans — are still considering photo ID rules.

Mollis, the Rhode Island secretary of state, acknowledges that his backing of photo ID rules has raised eyebrows among his peers around the country. At a meeting of secretaries of state earlier this month, he says, he was asked about his state's new law by "skeptical" Democrats. But he says many of them were more receptive when they found out some of the details of the law.

The measure, for instance, will be phased in and will not require photo IDs to be presented at the polls until 2014. It will provide IDs free of charge to all those who do not have them. Those who forget their driver's licenses will be allowed to fill out provisional ballots that can be validated later.

Mollis says those safeguards and others can help improve the fairness of elections while ensuring that every eligible voter is able to cast a ballot. And he says Democrats in other states should consider backing similar proposals.

"I believe in a lot of the Democratic principles. But when the day is done, my job is to maintain the integrity of elections," Mollis says. "I would love to see the Democratic base nationally embrace something like this." 

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