Gemma’s timeless nonsense

Aug 23, 2012

Democratic Congressional candidate Anthony Gemma says there is widespread voter fraud in Providence. RIPR’s Scott MacKay reminds us that such allegations aren’t new in Rhode Island.

Charges of voter suppression, chicanery and outright bribery are as Rhode Island as frozen lemonade, quahogs and Narragansett Bay.

Our state’s long and florid political history is salted with jousts over who should be allowed to vote, whose votes count the most and campaign tactics straight from the underside of   the Tammany-Hall genre of electioneering.

The earliest settlers to this place Roger Williams famously called Providence restricted suffrage to white men who held real estate. After Rhode Island evolved from colony to state, the Protestant Yankees who held political control solidified it by ensuring that immigrants were denied the vote.

After the Civil War, Rhode Island swelled with Roman Catholic immigrants. The arrival of Irish, Italian and Portuguese newcomers startled the Yankees into action: A property qualification of $134 in real estate was established to keep poor immigrants away from the polls. And the state Senate was rigged to give rural Republican districts the upper hand: By 1920, West Greenwich, population 397, had the same number of senators – one- as Providence, population more than 100,000.

It was Charles Brayton, the state’s chief Republican operative who boasted that, “an honest voter is one who stays bought.’’

Back and forth went the accusations of  which side bribed more voters. When Republicans were criticized for buying votes, Brayton said the Democrats would do the same thing if only they had the money.

In those days, Republicans had ready cash supplied by the Yankee mill owners who bought a General Assembly that ensured that child labor was never outlawed in Rhode Island until the federal government banned it during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

When Democrats took over state government during the depths of the Great Depression in 1934, they didn’t play by Marquis de Queensbury electoral rules either.

In Providence, which by the middle of the 20th Century was a machine city run by the Democratic Party, the use of “street money’’ in elections was never far from the surface. By the 1980s, bribing voters to cast absentee ballots became so prevalent in some South Providence precincts that the General Assembly stiffened the laws against voter fraud.

Now comes Anthony Gemma with assertions that his Democratic primary opponent, incumbent Congressman David Cicilline, is tied to voter fraud. Gemma held a news conference Wednesday to say that Cicilline campaign operatives bribed voters. Gemma’s event had moments of  the surreal – he claimed that an unnamed to East Side Providence Democrat cross-dressed to vote more than once. This sounds more like paranoid talk show palaver than political reality, but , of course, one never knows.

There may well be problems with voting in the seen-better-days neighborhoods of Providence’s South Side. But you sure can’t tell by Gemma’s paranoid style and Joe McCarthy-like pronouncements of anonymous witnesses to purported crimes.

And there appears to be a bit of everything old is new again in Gemma’s tirade. Every time a new immigrant group comes to our shores, the natives tighten their grip on political power. And the new arrivals are always branded as knaves and thieves, corrupting the ballot box for the spoils – jobs and patronage – of government.

That’s how it was when the Yankees accused the Irish of stuffing ballot boxes. Now, in South Providence, it is the latest group of immigrants, the Latinos, who stand under a cloud of  chicanery cast by Gemma.

Impersonating a voter is a felony. You would have to really love a candidate to risk prison for casting your vote. If there is something to Gemma’s charges, well, let the authorities figure it out. And if there is nothing there, well, don’t expect it to end the talk of voter fraud. Just wait until the next campaign.