Anyone who attempts to impersonate another voter in today’s Democratic primary, and in upcoming elections, will find that they need to present some form of identification.
For this reason alone, it will not be as “blatantly easy” to commit voter fraud as it has been in the past, state Senator Harold Metts said when asked to comment on the allegations that beset Rep. David Cicilline’s re-election effort. Metts, a Providence Democrat, was the lead sponsor of the voter ID bill in the state Senate.
In an August press conference, Cicilline’s primary opponent, Anthony Gemma, told reporters that a private investigation agency he retrained uncovered evidence that demonstrates how Cicilline’s mayoral and congressional campaigns have benefitted from voter fraud since 2002. That was the year of Cicilline’s landslide victory to claim the office of mayor in Providence. He now occupies the congressional seat previously held by Rep. Patrick Kennedy.
But Gemma claims that the sworn statements he has obtained from people associated with Cicilline’s past campaigns points to an elaborate and well-funded voter fraud operation that has been in motion for years. Gemma also said during his press conference that it “strains credibility” to believe that Cicilline was unaware of fraudulent efforts organized through his campaigns.
For his part, Cicilline denies the allegations. His campaign manager, Eric Hyers, described Gemma’s press conference as a “bizarre and outrageous political stunt.”
However the legalities play out with regard to Gemma’s allegations, there is no getting around the hard fact that there is a long history of voter fraud in Rhode Island that calls out for serious reform, Metts said. Although voter ID laws have stirred controversy in other states, the weight of evidence demonstrates that they are necessary, but must be carefully crafted, he added.
“We always need to be concerned about potential disenfranchisement, and as lawmakers, we want to be mindful about becoming overly restrictive,” Metts said. “But we can no longer ignore the voter fraud issue. It would be a disservice to the citizens of Rhode Island to ignore either voter fraud or disenfranchisement; we had to bring balance.”
Rhode Island’s new law was tested for the first time during April’s presidential primary, when voters were asked to show drivers’ licenses, passports, birth certificates, or health club IDs. Voters who did not have the necessary identification were permitted to cast provisional ballots. Beginning in 2014, only a photo ID will be accepted, but the state will provide free IDs to anyone who needs them, and provisional ballots will remain in effect for anyone who lacks an ID on Election Day.
The idea is to implement voter ID gradually over the next two election cycles. Secretary of State Ralph Mollis has released a detailed explanation of the new guidelines for voter ID on his department’s Web site.
“I do feel validated by what has transpired recently, and I think everyone who supports voter ID should feel validated,” Metts said. “I had my own constituents come to me and complain about voter fraud, so we know it happens. Other states should look to Rhode Island as a model for voter ID laws. We did it right, and we did it in a way that was fair. The challenge now is to educate people about the process, and to make sure that those who are eligible and want to vote get out and have their votes counted. I knew the law would be controversial, but I’m also confident we have ample safeguards against disenfranchisement.”
Chris Barnett, a spokesman for the Secretary of State, concurs.
“Rhode Island’s bill is significantly less restrictive and differs substantially from the others that passed this session in two major respects,” he explained. “First, unlike the other states that provide a narrow list of acceptable photo IDs, Rhode Island broadly accepts any ID with a voter’s name and photograph. Second, although Rhode Island now requires that all voters present photo ID before receiving a ballot in person, a voter without a photo ID may sign an affidavit that she does not have a photo ID and cast a provisional ballot that will count if the signature on the ballot matches the voter’s registration signature.”
Voter ID supporters believe that the requirements will help prevent the fraudulent strategies described in the sworn statements that Gemma released to the press.
One witness described how campaign operatives would build a “Not Coming” list by calling actual registered voters to determine who was unlikely to show up at the polls. The “Not Coming” list was then given to willingly accomplices, who were paid to stand in and impersonate voters, the witness said.
“I was told to call the voters on the legitimate rolls and ask if they were going to vote,” the witness explained. “If they answered ‘no,’ I was to put a ‘NC’ next to their name and then make a list of the ‘NC’ list and give it to another member of the campaign. I found out later that they used this list to give the names to people who were paid to take their place and vote.”
With the voter ID law in effect, it will become more difficult for this kind of activity to take place, Metts observed, but he did offer an important caveat.
“We’ll have to see how the allegations play out in the legal arena,” he said. “It is very possible for campaign people to participate in activity that the candidate is unaware of. But I am convinced voter fraud occurs.”
Rhode Island is the only state with a Democratic legislature to pass a new photo ID requirement in response to voter fraud allegations since the 2010 elections. The move puts the Ocean State in company with Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The constitutionality of photo ID requirements was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2008 case that involved Indiana. Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan, South Dakota, and Indiana have had photo ID statues in effect for several years.
Mark Zaccaria, the Rhode Island Republican chair, told the OceanStateCurrent that both parties have a stake in uprooting voter fraud wherever it exists. The evidence that has been submitted against Rep. Cicilline must be carefully weighed, but cannot be easily dismissed, he said.
“Where voter fraud is real, it should be a major concern for everyone, and should not be a partisan issue,” Zaccaria said. “We are seeing a panicked reaction now from Rep. Cicilline. People don’t get panicked when they are trying to brush off a fly, they get panicked when something is about to sting.”