At a Senate hearing on voting rights last fall, Democrat Dick Durbin pointed out that voter ID laws were nothing more than a coordinated Republican effort to block poor and minority voters from the ballot. It’s a familiar charge, and Hans Von Spakovsky—Heritage Foundation fellow and leading voter ID proponent—squirmed briefly, before finding an out: “I don’t believe that the Democrats in Rhode Island who control…the state legislature would agree with that.” There’s a reason voter ID supporters have turned Rhode Island into a talking point: Of the eight states to pass photo ID laws in 2011, only Rhode Island had a fully Democratic legislature and a liberal governor. What’s more, black and Latino lawmakers were among the most vocal supporters of the July bill. Since then, Republicans have been happily invoking the law to rebut liberal accusations that voter ID laws are reviving Jim Crow-era tactics to disenfranchise minorities. If voter fraud is indeed taking place in Rhode Island, it would lend some credence to GOP talking points. But does the Rhode Island law actually represent good faith electoral reform?
Voter ID bills are nominally designed to safeguard against voter impersonation, but this argument is generally considered dubious, since there is scant evidence of such fraud. (Ari Berman in Rolling Stone and Ryan Reilly in TPM have done an admirable job outlining the problems with voter ID justifications.) Rhode Island, where voter impersonation has never been proven, is no exception. But anxiety over voter fraud carries particular weight in the Ocean State, which has a long legacy of political corruption. The author of the bill, Rhode Island Secretary of State Ralph Mollis (a Democrat), told me he introduced the law not in response to specific charges of impersonation, but to “address the perception of voter fraud.” Local journalist Ted Nesi echoed the sentiment, telling me, “People in Rhode Island assume everyone’s on the take.”
To back up their suspicions, voter ID supporters have tales of corruption. I heard a number of lurid testimonials of voter impersonation ostensibly taking place on the South Side of Providence. (None have been substantiated.) African American City Councilman Wilbur Jennings told me that his 2006 opponent, Leon Tejada, illegally registered people from other wards; former Councilwoman Joan DiRuzzo also blamed her first ever loss, to a Hispanic challenger in 2010, on text-message coordinated voter impersonation. Some accusations were more specific. State representative Anastasia Williams, who identifies as African American and Panamanian-American, told me that in 2006 her vote was stolen by an illegal alien who was promised a passport by a state official. During the 2010 elections, she says she saw a Hispanic man vote twice at the same polling place, wearing a different outfit each time. (“What caught my eye was [he] was a hottie,” she added.)