Should voters be required to show photo identification at the polls? For years, the question has amounted to a demarcation line between Republicans and Democrats.
The 2011 legislative year was shaping up to be no different. Republicans seized on their sweeping electoral victories last November by enacting photo ID laws in Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin, arguing that tougher rules are necessary to fight election fraud. Democratic governors in five other states — Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire and North Carolina — vetoed similar bills that their Republican legislatures passed, calling them an unfair burden on disadvantaged voters, chiefly minorities and senior citizens, who may not have driver’s licenses or other forms of government-issued ID. Behind the policy dispute are important political calculations, since Democrats claim that their supporters would be most of the people turned aside at the polls and that whole elections could hang in the balance.
Amid all the partisan sniping, however, is a little-noticed new law approved by the nation’s smallest state — Rhode Island — that has turned the voter ID debate upside down. There, it was majority Democrats who bucked their own party’s national leadership — as well as traditional allies including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — by passing a photo ID requirement of their own. Lawmakers approved the measure on the hectic final day of the legislative session, and independent Governor Lincoln Chafee signed it into law without fanfare on July 2.
It wasn’t until days later, when the Rhode Island Tea Party issued a statement praising Chafee and the legislature, that many progressive advocates realized the photo ID measure had become law. When they did, they were stunned and angry, and began to wonder the same thing photo ID opponents around the country are also now wondering: How could a liberal, urban state that is firmly in Democratic hands approve a voting law that Democrats in almost every other state — and at the national level — have blasted as modern-day disenfranchisement of minorities and the poor?