Look who backs voter ID
South Carolina and Rhode Island are both among the original 13 states that signed the Declaration of Independence. Both are on the Atlantic Coast. And both have single-party-dominated legislatures that this year passed laws requiring voters to provide photo identification.
But the S.C. General Assembly is run by Republicans, while the R.I. General Assembly is run by Democrats.
So if, as some people contend, voter ID bills are solely aimed at minimizing Democratic votes, why did those Rhode Island Democrats support that bill?
The practical -- and persuasive -- answer was provided by Rhode Island Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, who crafted the legislation, after the state's House and Senate approved it by overwhelming margins in July:
"The perception that identity theft could occur at the polls weakens the public's faith in the fairness of our elections. Voting should be at least as secure as everyday tasks like renting a car or getting a library card that routinely require ID."
Yet as reported on our front page Tuesday, the NAACP calls voter ID laws "a coordinated and comprehensive assault" on black and Latino voting rights. And the American Civil Liberties Union has warned that in our state, "elderly, student, minority or low-income voters ... will be disenfranchised as a result of this discriminatory bill."
The U.S. Justice Department is expected to announce on Dec. 27 whether it will OK the implementation of the S.C. law. In a lingering consequence of the bad old days when black South Carolinians were routinely deprived of voting rights, that federal authorization is still legally necessary.
However, this is 2011, not 1911 -- or even 1961. Those lawmakers in Rhode Island, like our lawmakers in South Carolina, recognized that voting rights are weakened -- not strengthened -- by the risk of voter fraud.
As for the claim that voter fraud is virtually nonexistent, the U.S. Supreme Court, in upholding Indiana's voter ID law in 2008, pointed out that "flagrant examples ... have been documented throughout this nation's history by respected historians and journalists." That ruling also cited "Indiana's own experience with fraudulent voting in the 2003 Democratic primary for East Chicago."
That majority decision wasn't written by a conservative jurist using his position on the bench to help "disenfranchise" reliably left-wing voters. It was written by Justice John Paul Stevens, a liberal icon who saw plenty of voter fraud as a young lawyer in Chicago.
Yes, partisan motives elevate the zeal of many Republicans, here and elsewhere, for voter ID laws.
But some of the overwrought objections to voter ID smack of political opportunism, too.
Five months ago in Rhode Island, Democratic Rep. Jon Brien made this convincing, bipartisan pitch for his state's voter ID law:
"I think that party leaders have tried to make this a Republican versus Democrat issue. It's not. It's simply a good government issue."
And reasonably verifying a voter's identity simply makes sense.