The Strange Case of Rhode Island’s Voter-ID Law

In the only state where voter restrictions have been backed by a Democratic majority, residents are bracing themselves for long lines in Tuesday's presidential primary.

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Apr 26 2016, 6:20pm


Primary voters waiting in line. Image via Getty

Few political issues have drawn as much starkly partisan rancor in recent years as the subject of voting rights. Since the Supreme Court's historic 2013 ruling disabling key sections of the Voting Rights Act, Democrats have accused conservatives of pursing a nationwide strategy to implement ballot restrictions that effectively block minorities from the polls. Of these new measures, perhaps the most controversial are new state voter-ID laws, which Republican lawmakers have aggressively pushed under the guise of preventing election fraud.

While most of these laws have been passed in places where Republicans hold strong majorities in the state government, there is one state that has bucked that trend. Rhode Island, a Democrat-controlled state which hosts its 2016 primary election on Tuesday, has been a rare exception in the partisan divide over voter ID laws, passing a law in July 2011 that requires residents to show photo identification before casting a regular ballot. The law, which was approved by amajority of Democrats in the state legislature, ran afoul of the national narrative about voter ID laws, and has since been trumpeted by conservatives as proof that such measures are simply good-government policy.

To outsiders, the circumstances surrounding Rhode Island's unusual voter ID law remain opaque, and even political observers in the state don't agree on exactly why local Democrats broke rank with the national party on the issue.

"I don't think there is one answer to this," said Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has actively opposed the state's voter ID law. "While Rhode Island is a consistently blue state in presidential elections and in our congressional delegation," Brown explained, local Democrats tend to lean more conservative, taking positions that would be associated with Republicans in other states. "The party label doesn't mean the same thing here that it does elsewhere," he added.

Even with Republicans largely on the sidelines, Rhode Island has not been shielded from the usual animosity surrounding voter restrictions. Some activists have claimed, for instance, that the law is an effort to disenfranchise Rhode Island's large and growing Latino population; with demographic shifts threatening to upend the balance of power in the state, according to this narrative, conservative-leaning Democrats forged an alliance with black lawmakers to pass a law that would keep Hispanic voters away from the polls. The activists voicing this concern have asserted that the state had seen no confirmed instances of in-person voter fraud and that the law followed years of increasing tensions between the state's black population and the more recent Latino entrants. They say that this confluence of factors may have pushed a diverse group of legislators to enact a law over the concerns of some in the state's Latino community.

"That's all bullshit," said former Rhode Island Representative Jon Brien, a self-described conservative Democrat who sponsored—and staunchly supported—the state's voter ID law. In an email, Brien emphasized that the bill was sponsored and supported by both black and Latino legislators. "Was it supported by the Latino community? No," Brien said. "But that's because they felt it was a move by the black community to suppress their vote. Which was a joke. I didn't give a shit about any of that."

Not all of the Democrats who voted for the voter-ID law were right-leaning like Brien. The year after the law passed, the New Republic spoke with black and Latino legislators who strongly supported the bill. Brien added that, in an effort to make Rhode Island's voter-ID law more palatable, its supporters opted for a less strict version than the ones passed in states like Texas, Wisconsin, and Indiana. Under Rhode Island's law, voters who cannot provide a regular ID can cast a "provisional ballot," which is counted if an election official decides the signature matches the one on the voter's registration.

But Brien also seemed to relish in the state's deviation from the standard Democratic Party line. "Without question, it screwed up the [Democratic National Committee]'s narrative about who's passing voter ID, and that's the part of it I love," Brien said. "I was not always known to be the best Democrat in the world, and that's okay."

Echoing conservatives elsewhere in the country, Brien accused other Democrats of demonizing voter-ID laws in an effort to mobilize its liberal base. "The idea that's its hard to get an ID card is bullshit and everyone knows that," he said. "Voter ID is not a restriction. I'd like for someone to point out to me one person who doesn't have an ID. In 2016, you need an ID for everything."

Research by voting rights organizations has shown that minority voters disproportionately lack government-issued identification cards, in comparison to their white counterparts. In Rhode Island, the state's voter-ID law has already resulted in issues: According to the Rhode Island ACLU, when the law first went into practice, during the 2014 primaries, some poll workers attempted to block residents from voting, claiming they could only cast provisional ballots with a proper ID card. Responding to criticism over the incidents, the state's elections office suggested the problem may have stemmed from poorly trained poll workers, and pledged to make sure the problems did not resurface in future elections.

But Myrna Pérez, director of the Voting Rights and Elections Project at the Brennan Center, said last week that she is not fully convinced Rhode Island elections officials have made the best effort to address potential misunderstandings surrounding the law.

"This is not not Texas and it's not Wisconsin," Pérez said of Rhode Island's voter-ID law. "The legislation is different, but when you look at some of the materials that are being distributed, you can see that some people could be really confused by it."

Pérez is referring to informational fliers that Rhode Island has distributed to educate residents about the voter-ID law, which highlight in large text that each voter must present an ID and, in relative fine print, notify voters of the provisional ballot option.

"This is evidence that what is being emphasized is the suppressive part of the law," she said, "not the part that tries to find accommodation."

Ahead of Tuesday's vote, Common Cause Rhode Island, a progressive advocacy group, raised concerns regarding the state's decision to open only a third of its polling places for primary voting—potentially too few, the group's executive director said for a state still settling into its voter ID law in an primary cycle that has often seen high turnout. The Rhode Island ACLU and Common Cause Rhode Island, which also opposes the voter-ID law, told VICE that they will send poll watchers to polling locations to make sure that this primary election goes smoother than that of 2014.

"We both witnessed and received complaints from voters about unfairly being denied the ballot for not having an ID," said Brown of the ACLU. "This is not some made-up concern."

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