PROVIDENCE, RI – Rhode Island's General Assembly has enacted legislation requiring all voters to get photo identification. WRNI political analyst Scott MacKay wonders why our recession-racked state is spending taxpayer dollars on this one.
Beginning with next year's election, Rhode Island voters will face yet another hurdle to participating in the world's greatest democracy. As if waiting in long lines at precincts supervised by poorly trained poll workers isn't bad enough, voters must now provide identification to cast ballots.
It gets worse. Starting in 2014, this identification must contain a photograph. Estimates of the cost of this run into several hundred thousand dollars in a state that has recently raised taxes and cut health care for children to balance the budget.
If ever there was a solution grasping for a problem, it is requiring voters to show photographs in order to vote. When was the last successful prosecution in Rhode Island for impersonating a voter? Well, there isn't one in the memory of state or federal prosecutors or the secretary of state's office.
Requiring photo id is sure to slow down the voting process and cause longer lines, especially in a presidential election year when turnout is higher than off-year elections. A larger question is how will this be uniformly and fairly administered across our diverse little state?
Typically, poll workers are elderly folks who assume their duties only once every two years. In many communities, they are on a first-name familiarity with voters. Anyone who believes that an elderly election warden working once every two years is qualified to enforce a voter id law and prevent fraud hasn't rubbed up against an underage drinker with a fake id in a college town tavern on a Friday night.
In recent political memory, political chicanery has not involved ineligible voters. From Almeida to Zambarano, Cianci to Celona, Martineau to Maselli, it's been the politicians, not the voters, who have been convicted of corruption.
Voter id laws have been pushed by conservative Republicans, anti-immigrant groups and the Rhode Island Tea Party, which hailed approval of this misguided law. They are reacting to the myth that illegal immigrants and ineligible voters are flocking to the polls.
Rhode Island has a shameful history of suppressing the votes of the poor and newly arrived. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Protestant Yankees who ran the state were state was notorious for establishing hurdles to voting, including property qualifications, anti-immigrant provisions and even outright vote-buying and bribery.
It was the Republican political operative Charles `Boss' Brayton who infamously said an`` honest voters is one who stays bought.''
One wonders why Democratic Secretary of State Ralph Mollis campaigned for this when his office has been so slow to move to protect voting rights for Rhode Island military personnel serving abroad.
All this new law will accomplish is make it harder for the poor, the college students, the elderly and the homeless to vote. Which is why so far this year five governors from states as diverse as North Carolina, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Montana and Missouri have vetoed such measures.
That is what Governor Lincoln Chafee should have done. The sad part of recent elections in our state is the dismally low voter turnout. Why oh why is Rhode Island, one of the historic cradles of American democracy, now erecting barriers to voting?
Scott MacKay's commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:30 and 8:30. You can also follow his commentary and political reporting on the `On Politics" blog at WRNI.org.
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