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New voter ID requirements spur complaints of disenfranchisement

RIACLU criticizes ID rules’ impact on voters, but officials claim law’s implementation has run smoothly

The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island is leading a drive to educate eligible voters on the state’s new voter ID law in time for the general election, after errors made in the law’s implementation during the Sept. 9 primary led to voter disenfranchisement, said Hillary Davis, RIACLU policy associate. 

As of Jan. 1, 2014, the voter ID law requires people to show photo identification in order to vote. In the past, state requirements had called for either photo ID, bank statements or government-issued documents. Voters who do not have a valid photo ID can either cast a provisional ballot or obtain a free voter ID upon request. Votes submitted using these provisional ballots are counted only after signatures are matched with voter registration records.

RIACLU poll watchers positioned at various polling sites throughout the state on primary day noted cases in which poll workers mistakenly dismissed voters due to misunderstandings about the new policy, Davis said.

Poll watchers witnessed voters being sent away for lack of photo ID without being offered a provisional ballot or told by precinct officials that the information on their ID did not match Rhode Island Board of Elections records, Davis said. These implementation errors were also present in 2012 statewide elections — when the new voting law was first implemented, but with its less restrictive requirements ­­—  but were absent prior to the passage of the voter ID law, she added.

Robert Kando, executive director of the Board of Elections, said the RIACLU is the only organization to formally issue complaints to the Board of Elections regarding ID legislation. During the primary, 228 people submitted provisional ballots out of the 158,000 who voted. Ten of those provisional ballots were disqualified, he added. “That is as close to perfect as you’re going to get,” given that this election cycle is the board’s first time operating under the more stringent requirements, Kando said.

Though the RIACLU has attempted to form substantive partnerships with the state government, officials at the Board of Elections and the Secretary of State’s office have not been responsive, Davis said. In response, the RIACLU’s goals to improve the training of poll workers and freeze the voter ID law at non-photo ID status have so far been unattainable, Davis said.

The Board of Elections is executing its own methods of resolving these issues of disenfrancisement, such as asking machine technicians to check in with polling site supervisors and reiterating provisional ballot policies, Kando said.

The RIACLU wrote to the Board of Elections highlighting the voter ID law’s implementation issues during the primary election, Kando said, adding that the board answered the RIACLU’s communication but received no follow-up response.

Supporters of the law claim that the new requirements are valuable in ensuring fair elections in the state.

Voter ID laws are necessary in preventing voter fraud, said John Carlevale, Republican nominee for secretary of state, the local ABC affiliate reported.

But Kando said he has not witnessed voter fraud as a significant threat to the integrity of Rhode Island elections. “The board has received very few complaints of voter fraud in the nine years that I’ve been here,” he said.

The RIACLU has turned largely to voter education programs to mitigate voter disenfranchisement caused by the ID legislation, Davis said.

Voter education is necessary because of general public unawareness of the law and of how to obtain a free voter ID, Davis said, adding that the free voter ID service assumes that individuals have the resources and time to access the Office of the Secretary of State, which coordinates the distribution of such IDs. “You have these groups that are already marginalized, who have now lost their ability to go to the polls and add their voice, and it means the government is not representative of them,” Davis said.

The RIACLU has published brochures detailing voting rights and ID requirements under the new law, Davis said. The group has also reignited its initiative to repeal the voter ID law. “You should not need an ID to cast your constitutional right to vote, or to preface your constitutional right to vote,” she added.


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