Rhode Island’s voter identification law strikes a balance that should be emulated in states where both major parties are politically competitive, Sen. Harold Metts told the Ocean State Current in an interview.
Civil rights groups have legitimate concerns about the new requirements and stipulations that are now law in some of the more conservative states, he continued, but they tend to overlook fraudulent activities that undermine ballot integrity.
“For years, I had heard complaints from some of my constituents about voter fraud, and I felt like it was time for us to take action,” said Metts, a Democrat from Providence. “There’s always a concern about disenfranchisement, and we should make every effort to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote can vote. But it got to the point where there was a such fear over disenfranchisement that people just buried their heads when it came time to deal with voter fraud, and that was not healthy for our democracy.”
The voter identification requirement is not as controversial in Rhode Island as it is in other parts of the country. In states where it is possible for a small number of votes to swing election results, there is a greater tendency for voter ID proposals to spark partisan divisions, Metts explained.
Since 2011, Rhode Island has been the only state with a Democratic legislature to pass a new photo ID requirement in response to voter fraud allegations. 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. Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan, South Dakota, and Indiana have had photo ID statues in effect for several years.
Going forward, the complicating factor for state officials elsewhere will be the 1965 Federal 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.
The DOJ has already moved to block the voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas; both states are counter-suing. In Wisconsin, a state judge ruled that its law is unconstitutional. Officials there have appealed the ruling, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court has declined to take up the cases. That means the Wisconsin law will remain on hold through the November elections.
The Brennan Center for Law and Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and other liberal groups claim the allegations of voter fraud are greatly overstated and that photo ID requirements have a tendency to disenfranchise minority voters. (The Brennan Center has released an assessment of the voter ID laws passed since 2011.)
There is no escaping the partisan tilt of the debate. The five Democratic governors who vetoed photo ID legislation last year in Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, and North Carolina were all confronting Republican-led state legislatures.
But Sen. Metts sees room for common ground.
“The key word is balance,” he said. “Voter fraud is real; it has a history here in Rhode Island; and it is a problem in other states. What we did here was very reasonable and very necessary, and I think we can be a model for other states. I certainly think it’s possible to have too many requirements and to create too many hurdles and burdens. That might be true in the more conservative states; it’s not true here.”
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.
John Fund, a senior editor for the American Spectator, has credited Sen. Metts for demonstrating that support for voter ID cuts across racial boundaries and party lines. Metts is the only African American member of the state Senate.
New poll numbers from Rasmussen show that minorities favor voter identification laws by a slightly higher percentage than whites. Fund, who is also the author of Stealing Elections, seized on this point during the “True the Vote” Summit in Houston, Texas, earlier this year.
“I believe the biggest victims of voter fraud today are minorities,” Fund said. “They obviously support [voter ID]; they think voter fraud is a more serious problem than anyone … Their leadership has failed them by yelling racism in a crowded little theater and by dividing us rather than uniting us. Their entire edifice is built on fraud and misrepresentation.”
Artur Davis, a former Democratic congressman from Alabama, has called attention to electoral fraud in his home state. He has also been critical of pressure groups that oppose ID legislation.
“When people use the word ‘rights’ these days, that seems to imply that they don’t have any responsibilities,” he said during the Houston summit. “It’s like saying I have a right to work, but no obligation to show up. People need to prove they are who they say they are so false votes don’t cancel out real votes.”
Although Rhode Island’s support for voter ID is viewed as an anomaly, Sen. Metts remains hopeful that bipartisan action on behalf of electoral integrity can take root elsewhere. To understand the dynamics of Rhode Island, Sen. Metts suggests that voter ID critics look to former House Speaker Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts, who said “all politics is local.”
“Rhode Island is not going to suddenly turn into a conservative state,” he said. “There’s no fear of this law upsetting the apple cart; it’s going to remain a liberal Democratic state. But there are real concerns over voter fraud.”