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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Voting Rights, Part 1

Toward the end of this year’s session of the General Assembly, a strange thing happened. The Democratically-controlled legislature passed, and center-left independent Governor Lincoln Chafee signed a bill that is at the center of the Republican Party’s national strategy for 2012: Voter ID.

The more people who vote, the more likely they are to vote Democrat. Simple demographics. Upper-income whites generally vote in far higher numbers than working class and low-income people, especially people of color. If turn-out is up, the odds are it will be due to more working class, low-income and people of color who tend to vote Democrat. So this simple arithmetic has become, for the Republicans, a very simple strategy: suppress the vote.

As Bill Clinton called it, “One of the most pervasive political movements going on outside Washington today is the disciplined, passionate, determined effort of Republican governors and legislators to keep most of you from voting next time....There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today. Why should we disenfranchise people forever once they’ve paid their price? Because most of them…were African Americans and Hispanics who tended to vote for Democrats. That’s why.”

But in Rhode Island, we had this peculiar vote take place because of an odd alignment of the planets. Conservatives, of course, have been consistently working the Republican Party’s “crush the vote” strategy and have promoted Voter ID as the best way to keep all those undeserving aliens and “illegals” from achieving sacred franchise. Even if they have to make it up.

Metro RI Democrats, especially African-American Democrats, had the crap scared out of them by the surging political power of Hispanics in traditional Democratic strongholds. Losing Providence City Hall to Angel Tavares was perceived as an insult. It was bad enough that Providence elected an openly gay man as mayor before electing its first black mayor. Now, a Hispanic man gets elected before the black community has had its turn. So powerful legislators like Rep. Anastasia Williams and Sen. Harold Metts led the charge for Voter ID because, ironically, they and the Republicans have a similar interest in voter suppression.

Travis Rowley, the firebrand leader of the RI Young Republicans, led the charge for his party with the claim that "The RI Board of Elections has heard official testimony from Providence residents who claim to have witnessed known illegal aliens voting in local elections." Young Travis often likes to make things up, which is why the Providence Journal’s Politifacts gave this statement a “Mostly False” rating. He missed getting “Pants on Fire” only because there was one instance where a witness claimed she saw a non-citizen voting – a claim that was never substantiated.

Tea Party Republican Doreen Costa (R-NO Kingstown) had introduced her version of a voter ID bill, but happily withdrew it and supported the Democratic version. She was positively gleeful to see it become law, considering it one of the best things to come out of this session of the General Assembly.

And then Lincoln Chafee signed it, rather than do what several other governors have done – including those in very red Southern states – veto it. He, too, had his story: “Notably, I spoke with representatives of our state's minority communities, and I found their concerns about voter fraud and their support for this bill particularly compelling.” Except for Anastasia Williams, Harold Metts and others they arm-twisted in the Assembly, Chafee didn’t have this community base of support at all. In fact, just about every civil rights group in the state opposed the bill. So did organized labor, the ACLU and a legion of other groups.

This bill is going to cost the taxpayers money to implement. The state will need to come up with a practical plan to make sure every person can easily get an ID – this may seem like a given in affluent communities like Charlestown, but in urban neighborhoods where people don’t automatically have a car and a driver’s license, it’s not so simple.

Then, before the next Election Day, poll workers will have to receive the kind of training that prevents the voting process from becoming an agony. Here in Charlestown, we don’t experience the kinds of lines and waiting often seen in the cities, but it will be interesting to see how much longer it will take our local poll workers to peruse each identification document and agree on its authenticity. As it is, the voter check-in process can be pretty tedious but who knows what this new requirement will do.

And what does all the hassle and expense get us. Young Travis Rowley got himself today’s failing Politifacts grade because he tried to answer a challenge put to him during a Channel 36 televised debate – he was asked to come up with one single instance of a conviction for voter fraud in Rhode Island. Just one. And the best young Travis could come up with a lie.

Author: Will Collette