In elections past, Rhode Island has not required photo identification for a ballot to be counted. However, with the passage of a new law the state has at least superficially joined the ranks of states which have approved legislation that will hamper the voting rights of its most vulnerable citizens. Yet the truth may not be so simple. Rhode Island’s law is less restrictive and more benign than legislation passed by other states which may explain the unique politics behind the passage of RI’s new photo identification bill.
The law will be implemented in two stages. “The first stage will require non-photo ID beginning Jan. 1, 2012. The second stage will require photo ID beginning Jan. 1, 2014.” For the upcoming 2012 election, voters are able to vote by establishing their identity through possession of forms of ID that do not have their photo, “including without limitation”: a birth certificate, social security card, or government-issued medical card. The language “without limitation” can reasonably be construed as meaning that “any current photo identification that includes the name and photograph of the voter will be accepted.”
Likewise, “if the person claiming to be a registered and eligible voter is unable to provide proof of identity as required, the person shall be allowed to vote a provisional ballot.” The local board then will examine these provisional ballots to “determine if the signature matches the signature on the voter’sregistration.” If they do then the vote will count, if not—itwon’t.
Voters effected by the second stage of the law, which will take effect in the 2014 election, are required to show one of the following: “a Rhode Island driver’s license, Rhode Island voter ID card (i.e. new, free ID card for voters), U.S. passport, Photo ID from U.S. educational institution, U.S. military photo ID, any photo ID card issued by U.S. or Rhode Island, or Government-issued medical card with photo.” No longer will voters be able to use birth certificates or social security cards as proof of identity.
The bill was signed by Governor Chaffee during the 4th of July weekend. Chaffee asserted that “[o]ne of our most cherished rights as Americans is the right to vote.” The Governor continued, “[t]hroughout our nation’s history, we have fought to ensure that no citizen be denied that right. Similarly, we have also worked to maintain confidence in our elections by enacting appropriate safeguards to prevent voter intimidation and fraud.” Chaffee also asserts that “believe that requiring identification at the polling place is a reasonable request to ensure the accuracy and integrity of our elections.”