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Why Did Liberal African-Americans in Rhode Island Help Pass a Voter ID Law?

At a Senate hearing on voting rights last fall, Democrat Dick Durbin pointed out that voter ID laws were nothing more than a coordinated Republican effort to block poor and minority voters from the ballot. It’s a familiar charge, and Hans Von Spakovsky—Heritage Foundation fellow and leading voter ID proponent—squirmed briefly, before finding an out: “I don’t believe that the Democrats in Rhode Island who control...the state legislature would agree with that.”

There’s a reason voter ID supporters have turned Rhode Island into a talking point: Of the eight states to pass photo ID laws in 2011, only Rhode Island had a fully Democratic legislature and a liberal governor. What’s more, black and Latino lawmakers were among the most vocal supporters of the July bill. Since then, Republicans have been happily invoking the law to rebut liberal accusations that voter ID laws are reviving Jim Crow-era tactics to disenfranchise minorities. If voter fraud is indeed taking place in Rhode Island, it would lend some credence to GOP talking points. But does the Rhode Island law actually represent good faith electoral reform?

Voter ID bills are nominally designed to safeguard against voter impersonation, but this argument is generally considered dubious, since there is scant evidence of such fraud. (Ari Berman in Rolling Stone and Ryan Reilly in TPM have done an admirable job outlining the problems with voter ID justifications.) Rhode Island, where voter impersonation has never been proven, is no exception. But anxiety over voter fraud carries particular weight in the Ocean State, which has a long legacy of political corruption. The author of the bill, Rhode Island Secretary of State Ralph Mollis (a Democrat), told me he introduced it not in response to specific charges of impersonation, but to “address the perception of voter fraud.” Local journalist Ted Nesi echoed the sentiment, telling me, “People in Rhode Island assume everyone’s on the take.”

To back up their suspicions, voter ID supporters have tales of corruption. I heard a number of lurid testimonials of voter impersonation ostensibly taking place on the South Side of Providence. (None have been substantiated.) African American City Councilman Wilbur Jennings told me that his 2006 opponent, Leon Tejada, illegally registered people from other wards; former Councilwoman Joan DiRuzzo also blamed her first ever loss, to a Hispanic challenger in 2010, on text-message coordinated voter impersonation. Some accusations were more specific. State representative Anastasia Williams, who identifies as African American and Panamanian-American, told me that in 2006 her vote was stolen by an illegal alien who was promised a passport by a state official. During the 2010 elections, she says she saw a Hispanic man vote twice at the same polling place, wearing a different outfit each time. (“What caught my eye was [he] was a hottie,” she added.)

How does this alleged voter fraud work? According to Williams, a candidate hires a “recruiter,” who obtains a list of likely non-voters, and then pays willing foot soldiers to cast ballots in their place. A large Hispanic man who calls himself “El Macho” and works for the Providence Water Supply Board is rumored to be the most prominent recruiter. George Lindsey, a prominent South Providence African American, told me that candidates have long paid El Macho five or six thousand dollars per election. “What he’ll tell you is he’s basically a hired gun.”

Whatever truth there is to these accusations, it’s difficult to ignore the pattern: The perpetrators are all Hispanic and the accusers are mostly not. This underlines what is most likely at play in Rhode Island— anxiety over the state’s changing demographics. Since 2000, the state’s white population has declined by 55,000, while its Hispanic population has increased by 45,000, or nearly 50 percent. The immigration boom, coupled with a 10.8 percent unemployment rate (the third-worst in the country), has contributed to the open hostility toward Hispanics. Voter ID proponents subtly capitalized on these fears. The bill’s main House sponsor, conservative Democrat Jon Brien, has “anti-immigrant credentials like no other,” says Latino activist Pablo Rodriguez. Brien has argued that illegal immigrants are usurping government resources, taking American jobs, and now, voting.

Such anxiety, if not outright animosity, seems to have infiltrated traditionally liberal, African American ranks. Luis Aponte, a City Council member of Puerto Rican descent, told me that in the past decade, an “us versus them” mentality has proliferated between blacks and Hispanics. “Neighborhoods in the South Side [of Providence], in the eighties and nineties, [were] exclusively represented by African American officials.” Now, most of those seats are occupied by Hispanics. Rodriguez, the Latino activist, argues that the support for voter ID is purely partisan. “You have African Americans that have been here forever,” he says; they want to build a coalition with Latinos, but Latinos—who now outnumber them—aren’t interested. Out of desperation, Rodriguez believes, once-dominant blacks and ethnic whites are hoping voter ID bills will suppress Latino turnout.

To be sure, Rhode Island’s voter ID law can’t simply be chalked up to ethnic discord. A couple of established Latino state representatives voted for the bill, suggesting that they too may have concerns about the political influence of newly arrived immigrants. Besides, as Providence College professor of political science Tony Affigne told me, minority legislators who voted for the law weren’t necessarily fabricating their tales of voter fraud—they were just ascribing too much importance to them. “I’ve seen [some voter fraud] with my own eyes,” Affigne told me. “But it’s certainly not the kind of problem that [necessitates] a statewide draconian law.” One state legislator agreed, telling me, “I think they’ve fallen for the urban legend stuff,” adding that, because of their naïveté, they’re “being used as pawns by the anti-immigrant conservatives.”

Whether minority legislators voted for voter ID in good faith, or to disenfranchise ethnic rivals, the law effectively contributes to the state’s increasingly conservative slant. More important, Rhode Island’s poor, elderly, and minority citizens risk losing their vote when the law takes effect in 2014. And while Rhode Island’s law is actually more lenient than those passed in other states, and was not part of the centralized Republican push to move such bills through state legislatures, it may have more staying power. Citing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Department of Justice struck down South Carolina’s voter ID law in December; the DOJ won’t be able to take such a tack with Rhode Island, a northern state that does not fall under the Act’s protections.

No single theory explains Rhode Island’s bizarre law, though one appropriate, if tired, maxim holds. As Anastasia Williams told me, “The national data and experience are important, but my politics is local.”

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.