Rhode Island is changing the discussion for Democrats over Voter IDs

It was no surprise that after 2010 when Republicans took the majority in statehouses and governorships nation-wide, one of their first priorities would be to enact rigid state voter ID laws. What did become something of a surprise was  Rhode Island, a very blue state with a left leaning governor, joined with their conservative counterparts and approved a Voter ID law of their own.

Voter ID legislation has been a major area of debate among state legislators for years, however action had picked up considerably after the Supreme Court decision in 2008. In a 6-3 vote, the court ruled in favor of Indiana being allowed to uphold their own Voter ID law after Indiana State Democrats brought suit against them based on what they saw as the foundation for disenfranchising voters. In 2011 alone we have seen own fair share of changes:

So far this year, all but a few of the 20 states that didn’t already have a voter ID law took up legislation to impose the requirement, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Of these, two states — Kansas and Wisconsin — enacted such laws, while similar bills await gubernatorial action in New Hampshire and North Carolina.

Meanwhile, 14 of the 27 states that already had voter-identification laws on the books sought to further strengthen them. Four of these states — Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas — succeeded, although the U.S. Department of Justice must approve the South Carolina and Texas laws before they can take effect.

You can view an interactive map with information on up-to-date Voter ID legislation for each each state by clicking here

The article discusses why Democrats in Rhode Island, members of a party who traditionally have been staunch opponents of Voter ID laws, would get behind this kind of legislation. Suggestions range from effective testimonials given by people who claimed to have witnessed voter fraud to the emergence of a more moderate agenda when you’re the dominant, “Big-Tent” party in the state. Regardless, Rhode Island has put Democrats in an uncomfortable spot – do we support their actions or view this as a rogue branch that has taken the wrong side on an important issue? Also is this going to be a problem that drags on Democrats nationally? While our opposition to voting barriers is an definitive way to draw clear governing differences between Republicans and Democrats on the value of protecting the right to vote, Rhode Island Democrats might be showing us a way to take a wedge issue out of the hands of GOP opponents running in moderate districts in future elections. While Republicans concentrate on generating fear of a voter fraud onslaught to create logistical and economic hardships for likely (democratic) voters to cast ballots, once again Democrats can take leadership and incubate in a fairly liberal state a pragmatic approach to finding a middle way.

Personally I believe the push for Voter ID is an obstruction of our basic right as citizens but out of the 29 states that feel otherwise, Rhode Island’s approach appears to be the most equitable. A closer examination of Rhode Island’s law reveals regulations not nearly as oppressive or restricting as similar laws passed by GOP-lead states such as Texas and Tennessee . Compared along side each other, Rhode Island’s law allows multiple forms of Photo ID to qualify and in the event the voter does not have a Photo ID, the state will still accept and approve a provisional ballot with a signature that matches the voter registration card. Republicans in Texas and Tennessee enacted draconian regulations with a rigid list of permissible ID’s and no exceptions based on a voter’s registration signature match. Their timelines for enacting their new laws are respectively harsher with Texas and Tennessee moving to implement this law Sept 1st (Texas) and Jan 1 2012 (Ten) and Rhode Island allowing for a slow phase in to be completed by 2014.

Fighting against the erecting of barriers between citizens and their voting booths is one of the main pillars of our national Democratic Party, but Democrats in Rhode Island decided to go a different route. The results of their work and the motives of their actions will be under review for sometime but at the very least local legislators seemed to have taken great pains to address possible verification problems and hampering the chances of widespread voter dissatisfaction. So where the fight is hardest, in conservative states that do not seek to make those safeguards against disenfranchisement, lets hope Rhode Island’s example serves as a counterweight to the oppressive systems being laid out elsewhere.