Courts Embrace Rhode Island’s Incremental Approach to Voter Identification Laws

With Pennsylvania in play for the presidential election, litigants who blocked that state’s voter identification law from being implemented are claiming a “huge win” for constituents they say could have been disenfranchised. The New York Times, accepting the spin from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), has compliantly reported that the PA voter ID law is “gutted for 2012.”

In reality, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Judge Robert Simpson upheld the constitutionality of the voter ID in his state but said it could not implemented in full until next year. The result was the same in South Carolina, where a federal court also upheld a voter ID law but ruled that it must be rolled out incrementally beginning in 2013.

If lawmakers in other states had modeled their efforts after those of Rhode Island, their laws may have been less susceptible to legal challenges. Sen. Harold Metts, a Democrat from Providence, who led the charge for the voter ID law that is now operative in the Ocean State, has said that an “incremental approach is crucial.” While there are legitimate concerns about disenfranchisement, they must be balanced against voter fraud that is more widespread and rampant than groups like the ACLU care to acknowledge, Metts has told the Ocean State Current.

“We always need to be concerned about disenfranchisement, but what about the people who are having their votes canceled out by voter fraud, and by someone voting in their place who should not?” Metts asks. “There has been such a concern over disenfranchisement, that there has been a tendency for all of us to bury our heads when it comes time to voter fraud. That’s not healthy.”

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.

The constitutionality of photo ID requirements was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2008 case. Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan, South Dakota, and Indiana have had photo ID statues in effect for several years. Since the 2010 mid-term elections, Rhode Island has been the only state with a Democratic legislature to implement voter ID.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has challenged the constitutionality of the new voter ID laws under Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA), which was initially set up as a safeguard against racial discrimination. Under the VRA, any changes made to voting laws in certain areas of the country must be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The jurisdictions covered under the federal law are all of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia and parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota.

Despite incessant legal challenges from the ACLU, and other groups, voter ID continues to prevail on the merits in most cases. The exception here is Texas, where Governor Rick Perry is now challenging the constitutionality of the VRA’s Section 5. In August, a federal court did strike down the Texas law. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to take up the case in its current term since Attorney General Holder’s application of the VRA appears to be in conflict with the high court’s previous ruling in favor of voter ID.

Meanwhile, the court rulings out of PA and SC make it clear that Sen. Metts and other Rhode Island lawmakers struck the right balance between concerns over possible disenfranchisement and the necessity of ballot integrity in a state that has been beset with accusations of fraudulent efforts in the past.

The three-judge panel in SC ruled in part as follows:

Act R54 [the South Carolina law] as interpreted thus satisfies Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and we grant pre-clearance for South Carolina to implement Act R54 for future elections beginning with any elections in 2013,” wrote the court. “As explained below, however, given the short time left before the 2012 elections, and given the numerous steps necessary to properly implement the law –- particularly the new “reasonable impediment” provision –- and ensure that the law would not have discriminatory retrogressive effects on African-American voters in 2012, we do not grant pre-clearance for the 2012 elections.

(Click here to read the full South Carolina decision.)

(Click here to read Judge Simpson’s decision in Pennsylvania)


Of the following two issues related to Rhode Island’s public schools, which one is a greater concern?

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