Few political issues have drawn as much starkly partisan rancor in recent years as the subject of voting rights. Since the Supreme Court’s historic 2013 ruling disabling key sections of the Voting Rights Act, Democrats have accused conservatives of pursing a nationwide strategy to implement ballot restrictions that effectively block minorities from the polls. Of these new measures, perhaps the most controversial are new state voter-ID laws, which Republican lawmakers have aggressively pushed under the guise of preventing election fraud. While most of these laws have been passed in places where Republicans hold strong majorities in the state government, there is one state that has bucked that trend. Rhode Island, a Democrat-controlled state which hosts its 2016 primary election on Tuesday, has been a rare exception in the partisan divide over voter ID laws, passing a law in July 2011 that requires residents to show photo identification before casting a regular ballot. The law, which was approved by amajority of Democrats in the state legislature, ran afoul of the national narrative about voter ID laws, and has since been trumpeted by conservatives as proof that such measures are simply good-government policy.
To outsiders, the circumstances surrounding Rhode Island’s unusual voter ID law remain opaque, and even political observers in the state don’t agree on exactly why local Democrats broke rank with the national party on the issue.
“I don’t think there is one answer to this,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has actively opposed the state’s voter ID law. “While Rhode Island is a consistently blue state in presidential elections and in our congressional delegation,” Brown explained, local Democrats tend to lean more conservative, taking positions that would be associated with Republicans in other states. “The party label doesn’t mean the same thing here that it does elsewhere,” he added.