RI's Voter ID Law: Disenfranchisement, Or Good Security?

By Abbie Ruzicka


Jul. 21, 2011

BOSTON — Earlier this month, Rhode Island became the latest state among a handful that has signed a so-called voter ID law that requires all Rhode Island voters to show valid identification at the polls. Many Democrats say the law could suppress voters and disenfranchise minorities, students, the poor and disabled, but Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chaffee says it will ensure accuracy at the polls and keep voter fraud at bay.

Are voter ID laws a threat to voters' civil liberties? A good way of keeping voter fraud away from the polls? Where's the outrage? Should there be outrage? To explore these questions, WGBH's Callie Crossley opened up the phones and spoke with Laura Murphy, director of the Washington Legislative Office at the ACLU; Michael Pitts, a law professor at the University of Indiana who specializes in election law; state Rep. Jon Brien, the Democratic Rhode Island legislator who has been the primary sponsor of the law; and Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, the founder of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee.

Murphy said voter ID law is a form of voter suppression and the closest thing to a poll tax since the 1960s. “I feel like there’s been an information gap in the American consciousness about what these requirements really do,” Murphy said. “There are a lot of people who we don’t normally think of who would have a problem getting a voter ID.”

She cited evidence showing that voter-ID requirements disproportionately hurt African-Americans, low income people and the elderly.

Brien said the law was meant as a security precaution — and, in his view, is actually one of the nation's more liberal voter ID laws. “The notion that this is somehow a return to the Jim Crowe laws and a poll tax are nothing more than hyperbolic arguments that try to create the notion that this is a Democrat versus Republican issue,” Brien said. “Rhode Island has just shifted the entire paradigm in that debate.”

Brien noted that the law won't be fully phased in until 2014 — and that voters who do not have IDs will get a provisional ballot at the polls.

But Pitts cautioned against the efficacy of provisional ballots, which may or may not be included in an election's final count. In a study, Pitts found that only 15 to 20 percent of the provisional ballots cast in Indiana were counted in the 2008 election.

Part of the problem with provisional ballots, Pitts said, is inconsistency. “There’s a lot of people who will walk into a polling place and either not be offered a provisional ballot by the poll worker, or they’re offered the provisional ballot and they don’t want to take the 20 to 25 minutes it would take to fill out that provisional ballot.”

Pitts added that there are very few cases of voter identity theft when it comes to voting. Dr. Pablo Rodriguez agreed voter fraud is not a widespread problem in Rhode Island.

“This is a solution looking for a problem,” he said. “If this was a problem that needed a solution, then we would support it.”

A number of studies have shown that voter ID laws alienate Latino voters in particular, Rodriguez said. He sees voter ID laws as politically motivated, not racially motivated, as some have suggested. 

“Incumbents that are concerned about the number of Latinos moving into their districts and threatening their own positions as legislators. It’s something that doesn’t necessarily mean that these people are racists, but it means they see this as an opportunity to suppress some of this vote."

Do you think voter ID laws are a good precaution? Do you think they could disenfranchise voters? Leave a comment or join the conversation at Callie Crossley's Facebook page.

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