Rhode Island's Voter ID Law: Oddity or Game Changer?

A very blue state approves a law similar to some the national Democratic Party is criticizing.
by | July 28, 2011

Recently, Republican governors and legislators, emboldened by the 2010 election results, have been enacting or strengthening requirements for voting, most notably laws that demand photo identification from voters at the polls.

So far this year, all but a few of the 20 states that didn't already have a voter ID law took up legislation to impose the requirement, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Of these, two states -- Kansas and Wisconsin -- enacted such laws, while similar bills await gubernatorial action in New Hampshire and North Carolina.

Meanwhile, 14 of the 27 states that already had voter-identification laws on the books sought to further strengthen them. Four of these states -- Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas -- succeeded, although the U.S. Department of Justice must approve the South Carolina and Texas laws before they can take effect, according to NCSL.

The voter ID debate is a divisive issue with strong partisan overtones, since minority voters -- who are believed to be statistically likelier to be hurt by photo ID requirements -- vote disproportionately Democratic.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is one of several high-profile Democrats who has framed the debate as a core civil rights issue.

In a June 6 television interview, she compared voter ID laws to Jim Crow laws. After some criticism for the analogy, she apologized and walked back her comments, but added, "I don't regret calling attention to the efforts in a number of states with Republican dominated legislatures, including Florida, to restrict access to the ballot box for all kinds of voters, but particularly young voters, African Americans and Hispanic Americans."

One month later, former President Bill Clinton again invoked the specter of Jim Crow, telling an audience of young liberal activists that "there has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today."

So it came as something of a surprise when in early July, Rhode Island -- a state where both legislative chambers are dominated by Democrats and where the governor is a moderate-to-liberal Independent - approved a voter ID law.

On paper, Rhode Island is the last place one would expect to find a voter ID law being enacted. So how did it happen? And does passage of the Rhode Island law, in a heavily Democratic state, undercut the Democrats' national message that voter ID laws pose a severe threat to the civil rights of minorities?

Several Republican strategists label Rhode Island's actions as "a messaging nightmare" for Democrats.

"The fact that totally Democratic-controlled Rhode Island passed a voter identification requirement makes Wasserman Schultz look even more ridiculous than she had previously," says Kevin Igoe, a Republican consultant based in Maryland. "It destroys her contention that requiring an ID to vote is some right wing anti-minority plot. In this country, you need an ID to cash a $15 check. Isn't protecting our most sacred constitutional right worth at least the same level of verification?"

Jamie Burnett, a GOP consultant in New Hampshire, agrees. "The fact that Rhode Island's liberal governor, along with an overwhelming Democratic Legislature, have now supported a voter ID bill certainly puts a hole in the argument that such proposals are somehow a part of a right-wing effort to disenfranchise voters," he says. "These are make-sense measures that put voting on par with applying for a library card."

Democrats, for their part, downplay the impact of Rhode Island's action, noting that the bill is more forgiving than those pushed by Republicans in other states.

"This isn't a strict photo ID law like the others being debated across the country," says Scott Westbrook Simpson, press secretary for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an advocacy group that opposes photo ID bills. "This is not at all indicative of bipartisan support for these other bills, like the ones in Indiana or Georgia. Particularly, this law allows folks without a photo ID to still vote by provisional ballot."

The Rhode Island bill drives a wedge between advocacy groups who oppose the bill - such as state affiliates of the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and Common Cause - and key minority legislators who are among its most active supporters.

State Rep. Jon Brien, who chairs the House Municipal Government Committee and sponsored the House version of the voter ID bill, defended these minority legislators, saying that state Sen. Harold Metts "got involved because he saw voter fraud before his very eyes. Rep. [Anastasia P.] Williams talked in support of the bill because she has actually been a victim of voter fraud. I brought them into a meeting with the governor to tell their stories, and he obviously got it, much to the chagrin of some other advocacy groups."

Brien adds that Democratic supporters of the voter ID bill were pressured by national Democrats."The legislation was on life support for a while due to pressure from the [Democratic National Committee] and the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee]. I was pressured by the leadership of the state party to recommit the bill the day of the floor vote. Obviously, I refused."

Some political observers in the state have suggested that shifting demographics contributed to tensions between black and Hispanic legislators, possibly prodding some veteran lawmakers to use the new voter ID rules to strengthen their own electoral position. But experts disagree and cite other reasons why such a bill could have emerged from such unlikely partisan circumstances.

One is the nature of the state's big-tent Democratic Party. Because of the dominance of the Democratic Party in Rhode Island, "there are likely politicians who run as Democrats there but would be Republicans in other states," says Michael Kang, an Emory University law professor who specializes in studying voting laws.

Observers also pointed to the relative weakness of the Rhode Island law compared to those in other states. Even when the photo ID requirement goes into effect in 2014, the state will permit voters to offer a broad range of IDs, including medical IDs and those issued by universities. The law says the state will provide free IDs to those who need them, while residents who lack photo IDs will still be able to vote by provisional ballot.

"It's important to note that the Rhode Island voter ID bill isn't nearly as restrictive as those passed by GOP-controlled legislatures in Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Maine, and beyond," says Carolyn Fiddler, communications director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. "In the end, ballots cast by registered voters without IDs in Rhode Island will still be counted. The passage of this legislation changes nothing with regard to the fundamental arguments against GOP attempts to depress voter turnout and reduce ballot box access elsewhere."

A number of experts interviewed suggested a somewhat paradoxical view - that partisan passions will continue to flare over voter ID in the short term, but that the Rhode Island law could point the way toward a less polarized future.

In the shorter term, observers say they expect both parties to continue battling over voter ID since it is effective at energizing their bases. "Being against valid voter ID has been a winning, emotional issue for charging up the Democratic base, and they won't let it go easily," says Ben Cannatti, a GOP consultant who has worked with the Republican State Leadership Committee.

Yet some see voter ID laws as becoming more broadly accepted nationwide. If that's the case, a less draconian and arguably less partisan formulation like the one in Rhode Island could become a model Democrats elsewhere can live with.

"My own view is that those on both sides of this issue have been greatly exaggerating its importance, both the potential for vote suppression and the potential for vote fraud," says Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist. "I just haven't seen evidence of substantial vote fraud based on voter impersonation. It's a rather implausible claim unless you had an organized effort and I haven't seen that either. On the other side, there is little evidence that voter ID laws have reduced minority turnout. Providing free IDs deals with one of the legitimate issues here."

Doug Chapin, an elections expert with the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, compared the Rhode Island case to recent developments in Ohio, where the Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted is opposing photo ID legislation backed by the GOP-controlled Legislature.

The Rhode Island and Ohio cases, Chapin says, suggest "that what was once a predictable partisan divide might be more fluid -- and more than a little surprising -- in the months to come."

Indeed, David Stebenne, an associate professor of history and law at Ohio State University, suggests that the Rhode Island model could end up being attractive for Democrats -- if they seize the initiative.

In a state like Rhode Island, Stebenne says, Democratic dominance in state government would provide a counterweight to fears that the law puts minorities at a disadvantage. "Much depends not just on how the statute is crafted, but also how it's administered," he says. "Rhode Island has a very 'blue' political culture, and the danger of disfranchisement there is very low, I think."

Most enticingly, he suggests, the Rhode Island model could offer Democrats tangible political dividends. Passing a Rhode Island-type law in other states "would take voter ID off the table as a potential wedge issue in 2012 and beyond."

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