Ocean State: Testing the voter ID law

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by John Perilli

A week from now, all Rhode Island voters will become subjects for an ambitious new experiment. This is the first general election in which the new voter ID law, passed in 2011, will be in effect. Granted, it will not be fully in effect — the range of IDs accepted is broader this year and will narrow from any ID in 2012 to photo ID only in 2014. And granted, the law has already been used in Rhode Island’s Statewide Primary election, where it was almost a deciding factor in the contested House District 58 Democratic primary that was decided by a single vote. But the general election will allow the law to be observed on a much broader scale and will give observers and lawmakers the chance to decide whether or not it was effective.

The Rhode Island law came on the crest of a wave of similar bills passed in other states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana, each with the broad intent of cracking down on supposed cases of voter fraud. The backlash was immediate. Opponents stepped forward with evidence that voter fraud isn’t a real problem, and that these laws would instead disenfranchise Democratic voters who might not have identification. Courts have already blocked or struck down ID laws in Texas, South Carolina, and Ohio.

The Rhode Island law, though, has a legal out that the rest of these do not: the provisional ballot.

If you are a Rhode Island voter and cannot present proper ID at the polling place, you will receive a so-called provisional ballot to vote with instead, and then you will sign an affidavit swearing to your identity. If the local Board of Canvassers determines that you are indeed registered in that precinct, your provisional ballot will be counted. Otherwise, only certain votes on the ballot are counted, or the ballot is discarded entirely.

This part of the law has gotten a great many on the fence to support voter ID checking. Proponents say that provisional ballots prevent discrimination against those without IDs and solve the problem of certain demographics not being allowed to vote. The Rhode Island Secretary of State is required to offer free state IDs to keep the law from being nullified as a poll tax. Even Rhode Island’s notably liberal First District Congressman David Cicilline recently voiced his support for the law. In Rhode Island, the fierce institutional backlash that got the laws in Ohio and Texas overturned has been somewhat muted, and feelings about the law on the Democratic side aren’t all negative.

All the same, though, there are still some possible drawbacks to the Provisional Ballot system. First of all, compared with the previous method of voting, it is incredibly confusing. Despite a massive awareness campaign, a more complicated voting system might persuade that marginal sliver of voters only weakly attached to the democratic process to stay home on Election Day. Any evidence of depressed turnout in the 2012 election is sure to become ammunition for anti-voter ID advocacy groups looking to repeal the law next legislative session.

Provisional voting also places a great deal of arbitrary power in the hands of poll workers and local Boards of Canvassers. If a poll worker decides that an ID is not acceptable, they have the authority to present the voter in question with a provisional ballot and possibly discourage him or her from voting. This takes for granted that the poll worker actually knows the law — if not, they might not even give a voter with bad ID a provisional ballot at all!

Finally, when the votes are counted, the local Board of Canvassers has the final word on determining the validity of provisional ballots. Barring a lengthy lawsuit, their word is law. The cost of oversight — lawyers at every precinct — is steep and might prevent the law from being properly carried out on Election Day.

There is something else, though, that opponents of voter ID should fear if the law is deemed successful: Rhode Island’s voter ID bill could become a model for the rest of the nation.

While the pushback against restrictive voting laws has been strong, there is no reason to doubt that the tide will turn back the other way. When it does, and state legislatures need a legal bolster for their new voter ID bills, they will look to Rhode Island’s provisional ballot system and adopt it as their own. These new laws will be harder to attack in court and will have broader bipartisan support, making it more difficult for opponents to justify their repeal.

This all, of course, depends on how Rhode Island’s voter ID law works on Nov. 6. Reaction will likely be split, and a consensus may not emerge, but the law’s success or failure in the eyes of legislators and in the eyes of the voting public could very well determine the future of voter ID laws in the United States.

 

photo by Joshin Yamada: http://www.flickr.com/photos/oceanyamaha/3002322597/