2012-02-23 / News

State to offer voter IDs at Town Hall

Photo IDs not necessary for 2012 elections, but will be requirement by 2014
BY PHIL ZAHODIAKIN

March 8 will be a notable day for many Jamestowners planning to vote in the state’s presidential preference primary. That’s because the April 24 primary will be the first-ever Rhode Island ballot requiring voters to present personal IDs, and March 8 is the day when registered Jamestown voters lacking photo IDs can readily acquire them from the state.

The ID requirements are spelled out in Rhode Island’s new voter ID law, which became effective on Jan. 1. On March 8, staffers from the secretary of state’s office will be available at Town Hall – from 1 to 3 p.m. – to provide free photo IDs to registered voters who don’t have a picture ID of any kind.

Registered voters who don’t avail themselves of the opportunity can still vote in this year’s primary and November’s election. That’s because the new law will allow voters to present one of several non-photo IDs through 2013, which is a non-election year for Jamestown.

Nevertheless, acquiring a state ID is a way for registered voters lacking acceptable photo IDs to avoid a last-minute scramble to find their acceptable non-photo IDs for this year’s election and primary – and for all of the voting opportunities in the future.

In 2014, when the law is fully implemented, only acceptable photo IDs will suffice for votes to be cast (except in cases of “provisional voting”). In this year’s implementation phase, the law allows registered voters lacking acceptable photo IDs to cast their votes as long as they present one of three printed IDs: a birth certifi cate, a social security card or a government-issued medical card.

The acceptable photo IDs (this year and every year afterwards) will be a R.I. driver’s license, a passport, an ID issued by a U.S. educational institution, a U.S. military ID, a government-issued medical card, and, of course, the state-issued voter ID.

Registered voters who don’t have a photo ID but would like to acquire one from the state should bring to Town Hall any one of 27 different types of printed nonphoto IDs. The photo IDs issued by the state will not be usable for any purpose other than voting in Rhode Island elections.

If all this seems like an unnecessary nuisance, be aware that none of the lawmakers proposing strict (or even draconian) voter-eligibility laws in states outside Rhode Island have sought to ensure that everyone who wants to vote is provided with an acceptable ID at state expense.

In fact, the opponents of ID proposals and enactments in the other states are blasting them as transparent attempts to suppress voting by groups which, as numerous analyses of the last presidential election indicate, were strongly or predominantly supportive of Democrat Barack Obama: college students, minorities, the poor and the elderly.

According to a recent report on national trends in voter ID legislation, the lawmakers proposing strict ID requirements in states other than Rhode Island are almost all Republicans, and they respond to their critics with a consistent argument: They are simply trying to eliminate voter fraud.

Although the House and Senate sponsors of Rhode Island’s voter ID legislation were Democrats, they justified their proposals with the same argument. But Rhode Island’s lawmakers are demonstrably interested only in preventing voter fraud – not in voter suppression.

The proof of that assertion is that Rhode Island, unlike other states enacting similar or tougher eligibility rules, will ensure that no registered voter who wants to vote is ever hindered or prevented from voting by the new law – even if they show up at polling places without acceptable identification.

In those cases – or in cases where voters claim to have changed their party affiliation when local records indicate otherwise – the voters will still be allowed to cast provisional votes, which means their votes will be held in abeyance until their identities, or party affiliations, are verified.

Jamestown Canvassing Clerk Karen Montoya said that during the 14 years she has supervised the town’s elections, she has never encountered a single instance of voter fraud. Nevertheless, a principal sponsor of the state’s new law, Sen. Harold Metts (D-Providence), said he introduced his bill specifically to address voting irregularities. “While I’m sensitive to the concerns [about voting obstacles],” he said in July when the legislation was enacted, “at this point I am more interested in stopping voter fraud.”

Metts also said, “As a minority citizen and a senior citizen, I would not support anything that I thought would present [voting obstacles] or limit protections.”

Chris Barnett, communications director for the secretary of state’s office, said that a variety of witnesses, including lawmakers themselves, offered examples of voter fraud during committee hearings. “Rep. Anastasia Williams testifi ed that she and her daughter were victims of voter identity theft,” said Barnett. “They went to vote and they were told that they had already voted.”

Barnett said the cost for the secretary of state’s office to visit every Rhode Island community and provide photo IDs will be roughly $150,000. The law does not direct the state to provide any line-item funding for the initiative, although “there’s a possibility of a special appropriation,” Barnett added.

Whether or not there’s enough voter fraud in Rhode Island to justify the expenditure (and the law itself), Barnett says the photo ID requirement will go a long way towards “addressing the perception that voter fraud is widespread, which undermines public faith in the system. Brown [University] did a statewide poll on this issue, and they found that nearly 85 percent of the respondents supported rules requiring voter IDs.”

New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice – a non-partisan institute – has issued a report, “Voting Law Changes in 2012,” raising concerns about the votereligibility rules sweeping the nation. The report repeatedly refers to Rhode Island as an exception to the concerns. For example, the report says that the state’s ID law is “significantly less restrictive and differs substantially from the others that passed [in the 2011] session, in two major respects. First, unlike the other states that provide a narrow list of acceptable photo IDs, Rhode Island broadly accepts any ID with a voter’s name and photograph. Second, a voter without photo ID may sign an affidavit that he or she does not have a photo ID and cast a provisional ballot that will count if the signature on the ballot matches the voter’s reg- istration signature. In other words, a voter without photo ID can still cast a ballot that will count.”

All told, says the report, 34 states have proposed photo ID laws. According to the latest data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, eight of those states have enacted photo ID laws limiting voter eligibility to those who have government-issued IDs.

Except in Rhode Island, the Brennan Center determined, there are two major reasons for the trend. The report identifies the first one as “the stark shift in the partisan makeup of state legislatures after 2010. There is typically a sharp partisan divide over the issue of strict voter ID requirements, with Republicans generally pushing more restrictive measures and Democrats generally opposing them. In every case but one, strict voter ID bills were introduced by Republican legislators.”

The second major reason for the greater success of photo ID bills in 2011, says the report, “is that legislators made them more of a priority than they had been in the past. Many of the Republican legislators and election administrators swept into office in 2010 made voter ID a significant campaign issue as well as a major legislative priority.

Previously, it was rare for voter ID to become a campaign issue.”

The voter ID enactments, warns the report, “could make it signifi- cantly harder for more than 5 million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.” The report also notes that “the states that have already cut back on voting rights will provide 171 electoral votes in 2012 – 63 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidency. Although it is too early to quantify how the changes will impact voter turnout, they will be a hindrance to many voters at a time when the United States continues to turn out less than two thirds of its eligible citizens in presidential elections and less than half in midterm elections.”

To see the list of valid non-photo IDs that registered voters should bring to Town Hall – along with the list of 27 alternative documents – visit the Jamestown website. Click on “Voting” in the “Town Government” drop-down menu, and then click on “New Voter ID law in 2012.” The secretary of state’s office cautions that IDs will not be issued to anyone who already has a valid driver’s license, a DMV-issued ID card, a RIPTA bus pass with a photo, a governmentissued medical card with a photo, or a college ID with a photo.

The Brennan Center for Justice report can be found by logging onto the organization’s website (BrennanCenter.org) and searching for the publication, “Voting Law Changes in 2012.”

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