PROVIDENCE — Senators on Tuesday night heard debate about whether Rhode Island should repeal the voter ID law it enacted in 2011.
Back then, Democrat A. Ralph Mollis was secretary of state and the news release from then-independent governor Lincoln D. Chafee cited the support of then-senator Harold M. Metts, a Black Providence Democrat.
“As a minority citizen and a senior citizen, I would not support anything that I thought would present obstacles or limit protections,” Metts was quoted as saying. “In this day and age, very few adults lack one of the forms of identification that will be accepted.”
But Metts lost the 2020 election to a younger-more progressive candidate: Senator Tiara Mack. And now Mack, a Black Providence Democrat, is sponsoring the voter ID repeal bill that came before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday night.
“It is a racist and restrictive law,” Mack said before the hearing Tuesday. “It is grounded in a history of exclusionary practices in states in the Deep South that have used voting laws to prevent Black and brown people from voting.”
Mack noted that Massachusetts does not have a voter ID law and that Rhode Island is one of the few “blue states” to adopt such a law in recent years.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 35 states have laws requesting or requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls. The remaining 15 states use other methods to verify the identity of voters, such as checking a signature against information on file.
Mack said Rhode Island’s voter ID law prevents about an estimated 85,000 residents from voting, including many people of color.
“Data show it is an economic barrier,” she said. “People who are low income, Black and brown, may not have access to a birth certificate or don’t have a car and a driver’s license. These are all things people don’t consider when thinking of the impact of a photo ID requirement.”
Mack said the right wing has used the specter of voter fraud as a “fear tactic” to limit who can vote and to thereby remain in power. “It’s unfortunate the General Assembly took the time to address a problem that does not exist or that exists in such small instances that it does not impact outcomes of elections,” she said.
But Senator Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican, defended Rhode Island’s voter ID law, noting it passed with bipartisan support in 2011 and that both Metts and Representative Anastasia P. Williams, a Black Providence Democrat, backed the bill.
De la Cruz noted the state offers free voter ID cards, so she said costs should not pose a barrier.
“We know elections come around every two years, so there is plenty of time to obtain the proper ID,” she said. “And we need photo ID for everyday activities such as filling a prescription, cashing a check, applying for public assistance, getting a marriage license, or getting on an airplane.”
De la Cruz said she is the daughter of immigrants from Portugal, and she said, “When I talk to people in the immigrant community, they said it’s a no-brainer for them – of course you need an ID to vote.”
Christopher Toti of Pascoag, told the committee the the voter ID law is “crucial for the integrity of the voting process” so that election officials can be sure that “people live where they say the live and are actually citizens of the United States.”
He said voter ID is a “clear-cut” means of ensuring someone is who they say they are, and he hopes the voter ID repeals legislation “never sees the light of day.”
Cranston registrar and director of elections Nick Lima told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Cranston Board of Canvassers opposes repealing the voter ID law.
Rhode Island has “one of the most voter-friendly voter ID laws in the country,” Lima said. “First of all, if a voter doesn’t have their ID, they always have a chance to vote with a provisional ballot. And in terms of efficiency in operating polling locations, we have electronic poll pads that can scan the bar codes on voter IDs. That keeps the check-in process moving efficiently and keeps the lines down.”
Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties of Rhode Island, said the ACLU “strongly supports” the repeal of Rhode Island’s voter ID law.
The ACLU has monitored polling sites during every election since the law took effect in 2012, and in each election it has found examples of voters being turned away at the polls because they lacked ID but not being given the provisional ballot that they are entitled to receive, Brown said.
While voter ID advocates tout election security, he said there have been no prosecutions in recent memory for voter identification fraud in Rhode Island.
“In light of the incidents of voters without ID being denied provisional ballots, it is clear that voter ID has created more problems than it solved,” Brown said. “What cannot be documented is the number of voters who, because of voter ID, did not even attempt to cast their vote.”