Rhode Island Who Passed Voter ID?

VoterIDRequiredTwo months ago Hans von Spakovsky of the conservative Heritage Foundation, de facto apologist for a new wave of conservative-inspired voter ID laws, appeared on PBSNewsHour to defend the cause.

The laws, passed in eight states last year, are widely viewed as a Republican ploy to disenfranchise minorities and older voters who are less likely to have the photo identification the measures require at the polls.

But von Spakovsky, flashing a blue tie and tight smile, brushed aside criticism with what has become a standard talking point on the right. "While many Republican legislatures have passed these kind of requirements," he said, "we know that in Rhode Island, Democrats passed it."

Rhode Island is, indeed, the curious exception to the rule: the only state with a Democratic legislature and left-leaning governor to approve a voter ID law last year.

And with the measure set to face its first big test in this fall's elections, civil rights activists and Democratic operatives — local and national — are still scratching their heads: how is it that one of the bluest states in the nation enacted a law so red?

It is not an easy question to answer; Governor Lincoln Chafee turned down a request for an interview for this story and Speaker of the House Gordon Fox and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed's offices were no more forthcoming.

The silence isn't all that surprising.

While a Brown University poll conducted after the bill's passage found 85 percent of Rhode Islanders in favor of voter ID, elite opinion in Providence and Washington generally runs opposed. For those operating in leadership circles, this is an uncomfortable topic.

But after weeks of digging, the Phoenix has cobbled together a comprehensive account of Rhode Island's most compelling political whodunit in memory.

It is, in part, a political thriller: a tale of a quiet truce at a Providence restaurant, frantic phone calls from Washington, and intrigue in the governor's office. But the voter ID story also says something fundamental — and, at times, less than flattering — about how the people's business is conducted in Rhode Island.

DINNER
In July of 2010, Speaker Fox and State Representative Jon Brien met for dinner at Fleming's, a steakhouse and wine bar on the ground floor of the Westin Residence Tower in downtown Providence.

They were, in some respects, an unlikely pair: Fox the pragmatic, openly gay Providence Democrat who had ascended to the Speaker's office just five months previous and Brien the brash, deeply conservative Woonsocket Democrat with a penchant for controversy.

But the two had known each other for some time; Jon's wife Stella briefly served alongside Fox in the House from 2001 to 2002. And Brien had been in the chamber since 2007.

Over the years, Brien says, the pair had developed a brotherly kind of relationship: sometimes close, sometimes combative, but always animated by a mutual regard.

And on this night, the brothers were meeting to make peace.

Over the winter, Brien had backed Fox's prime challenger to the speaker's chair, Gregory Schadone, throwing a few of his trademark haymakers along the way. And while the insurgents were gearing up for another run, it didn't look good.

The Woonsocket Democrat, who had made some overtures to Fox during the annual budget fight in June, was ready to join the fold. And the Speaker, it seemed, was eager to consolidate his power.

Brien, who had championed voter ID since joining the House, insists there was no deal struck on the measure that night. "It wasn't your traditional inside baseball type meeting," he said. "It was two friends having dinner together."

But it did lay the groundwork for Brien's return to political relevance. And later, when he was firmly ensconced with the Fox team, Brien made it clear that the bill was a top priority — maybe even the price of his loyalty.

It wasn't a hard sell, necessarily; Fox had spoken in favor of the bill in 2009, when it passed the House only to die in the Senate. And some voter ID supporters say the Speaker might have ushered the measure through the House last year even if Brien had remained on the outs.

But for Brien, the law of Smith Hill was pretty clear. "If I hadn't made peace with Gordon," he says, "there would be no voter ID bill in Rhode Island. It's that simple."

Perhaps. But the steak dinner alliance would face a sharp test in the closing days of the session.

And the uneasy truce between Speaker and advocate was not enough to ensure passage. Far from it.


'I'M SUPER PARANOID'

It was 2006 and A. Ralph Mollis, a Democrat who'd come out of the hurly burly of North Providence politics, was running for secretary of state.

During a campaign stop at gaming company GTECH's West Greenwich campus he came upon Brien, then an employee of the firm, and the pair quickly bonded over voter ID.

After both men won election that fall, Mollis named Brien to an electoral reform commission that toured the state and identified voter ID as a top priority.

Groundwork laid, the secretary of state tapped the politically connected law firm of Adler Pollock & Sheehan to draft legislation. In January 2009, Brien introduced it in the House.

The measure was relatively liberal compared to the bills that would later pass in a series of GOP-controlled states. It phased in the identification requirements over two years. And it allowed anyone without an ID to cast a provisional ballot; if the local elections board determined that the signature on the ballot matched the signature on the voter's registration card, it would count.

By the time the bill was filed, the US Supreme Court had upheld an Indiana voter ID law still considered among the strictest in the nation. Mollis, through his work with the National Association of Secretaries of State, had become friendly with his Indiana counterpart, Republican Todd Rokita. And that spring, he asked the Hoosier to testify in the General Assembly.

Rokita, a commercial-grade pilot, agreed — flying into TF Green, where he was picked up by Deputy Secretary of State for Policy and Planning Paul Caranci and brought before the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill passed the House in May. But it went nowhere in the upper chamber, where Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed seemed cool to the measure; a former House member who ran into her after the legislative session says she voiced dismay at House passage of the bill.

Mollis didn't press for voter ID in 2010; had it passed in June of that year, he says, he wouldn't have had enough time to implement it for the fall elections. And as the 2011 session approached, there was no particular reason for optimism.

Then, on September 21, 2010, the Rhode Island state Senate's only black member, Providence Democrat Harold Metts, sent a one-page letter to Mollis that began, "I am writing to you to share concerns brought to my attention alleging voter fraud."

Caranci, the deputy secretary of state, remembers the missive quite well. "My eyes lit up," he says.

This was a potential game changer.

Metts is, by all accounts, a respected figure on Smith Hill. A deacon at the Congdon Street Baptist Church, he always has a Bible at the ready. "I keep my weapon right here," he tells me, lifting the black book from his desk during a visit to his State House office.

Metts says he'd heard complaints about voter fraud for years. One poll worker, he says, told him of a voter who came in to cast a ballot and couldn't spell his own last name.

After the bill's passage, when he was labeled a sell-out on the left, Metts would pen an op-ed for the Providence American, a black newspaper, claiming he'd filed the legislation because he "could no longer duck this issue."

But he was not the only minority voice for the bill. On the House side, liberal Providence Representative Anastasia Williams, who identifies as black and Panamanian-American, was emerging as an important advocate, too.

She says she filed into her polling place in 2006 only to be told that she'd voted already. "I didn't," she recalls saying. "And I'm not leaving here until I do." In 2010, Williams says, she saw a Latino man vote and then return, in different garb, to vote again.

She recognized him, she says, because "he was so cute." And as the man left to the hollering of other observers who had belatedly recognized the double-dip, Williams says, he passed right by her and quipped, in Spanish, "yeah, but it's too late."

The stories were intriguing. But critics saw an ulterior motive in black officials' support of voter ID: a bid to suppress Latino turnout, particularly on Providence's south side, where a growing immigrant population has helped to nudge blacks out of political office.

That fall, Latino candidates had claimed a Providence City Council seat held for nearly a quarter-century by a black councilwoman and ousted a Cape Verdean-American from a Providence House seat.

"The only thing I can think about is that African-Americans are somehow feeling that the growth of the Latino community is a threat to their election," said Pablo Rodriguez, a Latino doctor and activist, in an interview with the Providence Journal after the measure passed.

Metts, for his part, denies that racial politics played a role. And the argument for a black-Latino fissure is complicated by Williams' dual heritage and the support of a couple other Latino legislators for the measure: Representative Leo Medina and Senator Juan Pichardo.

But it seems clear that anxiety over the immigrant influx played at least some role in the General Assembly's vote. When I asked Senator Bill Walaska, a white Warwick Democrat, about the voter ID bill, he told me a story from Election Day in 2000.

He said he was helping then-Senator Robert Kells fight off a challenge from an upstart Pichardo when he came upon the distraught incumbent. "Bill," he recalls Kells saying, "people are pulling up in vans, I can see them giving them lunch. They're not my constituents.

"Everyone," Walaska tells me later, "knows we have a lot of illegals in Rhode Island."

But immigration was hardly the only concern. Many of the legislators I spoke with had some tale of their own — of a bureaucratic snafu or, perhaps, something more sinister — that seemed to justify passage of voter ID.

Representative J. Patrick O'Neill, a Pawtucket Democrat who serves as House Majority Whip, says that one year, six voter registration cards addressed to people he'd never heard of showed up at a house he owned. He never found any record that the mystery voters had cast ballots; someone, he figures, was just messing with him. But the experience was disquieting.

The tale gets at an obvious, but important point: voter fraud — real or perceived — is something that touches state legislators directly. Every two years, they devote endless hours to small-universe elections that can easily be tipped by a dozen votes here or there.

"Elections," the whip says. "are so personal."

O'Neill, who like Fox was a co-sponsor of the voter ID bill, says he wasn't prepared to "die on a hill" for the measure. And the members he canvassed in his role as whip didn't consider it a top priority. But they thought it was a good idea.

And when Metts and other minority legislators came out in favor of the bill, it provided plenty of political cover for anyone predisposed to the measure. "Senator Metts," Brien tells me, "had systematically blown up at least half the arguments about who would get disenfranchised by voter ID."


'IT'S GOING TO MOVE'

It must have been some sort of holiday, says Kate Brock, executive director of the liberal advocacy group Ocean State Action, because she was the only one in the office that April afternoon. She remembers being particularly disappointed that she couldn't access the coffee machine upstairs.

But then, a jolt of a different kind. The phone rang. It was Steve Brown of the Rhode Island affiliate of the ACLU.

"Voter ID," he said, "it's going to move."

Brock, like the rest of the Rhode Island left, was caught off-guard. Voter ID bills had been introduced for several years running, but had never gone all that far. Now, Metts' measure had been posted for a Senate Judiciary Committee vote. And opponents knew what that meant: it was greased for passage in the full Senate.

Work began immediately to build a coalition of opposition groups. And on May 4, a day after Senate Judiciary signed off on voter ID, 20 organizations staged a press conference to voice their opposition. "People fought, bled and died [for the right] to vote," said Jim Vincent, executive director of the Rhode Island NAACP.

The gathering won a brief mention in the Providence Journal. And by that point, several national advocacy groups were taking notice: The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law was in touch with good government group Common Cause Rhode Island. Howard Dean's Democracy for America political action committee was checking in with Ocean State Action.

But no one seemed fully awake to the possibilities. Certainly not the outside groups. "There was a lot of concern," Brock remembers, "but there was also a sense of 'this isn't actually going to move.' "

Rhode Island politics has long been a cipher for national observers. The state may look as blue as neighboring Massachusetts, but the Ocean State's deep conservative streak sets it apart.

And the Democrats' stranglehold on power insulates the party from traditional partisan concerns: voter ID may help Republicans, but in Rhode Island, that's all but irrelevant.

There is, too, something intensely parochial about the state's politics. And that was in full view here. Several of the legislators I spoke with seemed puzzled by the national attention the bill has attracted. And they argued that it should be evaluated in a local frame alone.

"What other states do is what other states do," says O'Neill, the whip. "It's a Rhode Island story."

It is, in a way, a noble approach. Why let national politics dictate what is best for Rhode Island? But for opponents, the General Assembly's parochialism had descended into myopia: legislators were relying too heavily on gut and personal experience, and not enough on data.

There are no documented cases in Rhode Island of the voter impersonation fraud the bill aims to stamp out, critics noted. And a small collection of shaky anecdotes, they said, didn't justify the kind of sweeping voter ID bill that could disenfranchise thousands.

Those arguments didn't seem to be making much of a dent with rank-and-file legislators. But there was still hope. At the State House, the big decisions are made by a handful of people — legislative leaders and a governor who, by dint of position, are more in touch with the national political scene.

Perhaps a few well-placed calls from a few well-placed people could make the difference.


PRESSURE

Congressman David Cicilline may have had public policy concerns about the voter ID bill. But he had some political interests at stake, too.

He was serving as mayor of Providence when he ran for Congress in 2010. And he declared the city in "excellent" fiscal condition during the campaign. So when his City Hall successor, Mayor Angel Taveras, reported a "category 5 hurricane" on the city's books, Cicilline's approval ratings plummeted.

He would need every vote he could get, it seemed, to win re-election.

But Cicilline's entreaties to his old ally Speaker Fox, however framed, were not enough. And by the end of the legislative session, with the bill poised for a vote, anxiety had spread to the highest reaches of the Democratic party.

Several sources, including Brien, say Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat who serves as chair of the Democratic National Committee, called Fox the night before the vote in a bid to squash the bill.

Voter ID, by then, was peaking as a national issue. In recent weeks, a half dozen Republican governors around the country — including conservative stars Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Rick Perry of Texas, and Nikki Haley of South Carolina — had signed bills into law.

And Wasserman Schultz was in a war of words with the GOP; in mid-June, she was forced to apologize after arguing in a television interview that Republicans "want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws."

If a Democratic legislature passed a voter ID bill, it would disrupt the party line: that voter ID is a GOP scheme to disenfranchise voters. And besides, Wasserman Schultz said, President Obama doesn't want this bill to pass.

Fox, according to Brien, told Wasserman Schultz to have the president call him directly if he wanted to block the bill. "And he says to me, 'Rep., I've defended this bill to everybody,' " Brien recalls, "'but if the President of the United States calls me and tells me that we can't do the bill, we're not doing the bill.' "

Fox, Brien says, was laughing as he relayed the details of the call. But it was clear he was feeling the pressure.

O'Neill, the party whip, remembers the senior leadership team sitting down behind closed doors for a final gut check. "It was a very frank meeting," he says. Put aside the titles and personalities. "What do we all think of this?" The consensus, O'Neill says, was that the measure was good policy.

On the night of June 29, at 10:45 pm, Brien sat with John J. Flynn, chief legal counsel to the speaker, as he posted a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee for the next day to consider the bill.

Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello delivered the news, by phone, to Judiciary chairwoman Edith Ajello, a liberal Providence Democrat who had lobbied hard to block the bill.

"I expressed my displeasure," she recalled, diplomatically, in a recent interview.

Ajello was in touch with Rhode Island Democratic Party chairman Ed Pacheco to plot strategy. And the next morning, Brien says, Pacheco called him and asked that he pull the bill. Brien declined. And after the measure passed out of committee on a 7-2 vote, he was feeling good about his chances.

But he was still nervous. All day long, he watched the House calendar refresh, waiting and waiting for the bill to come up for a vote. Then suddenly, it seemed, his nightmare scenario was upon him.

Fox wandered over and sat down next to Brien, looking sullen. "We got to talk," the Speaker said. Brien felt the blood rush out of his face. "It came in, I got the call," Fox said, "President Obama does not want me to pass this bill today."

Brien was silent for a moment, but he was "freaking out inside." Then, looking over Fox's shoulder, he saw a gaggle of representatives huddled in a corner, "laughing their asses off."

Brien offered up an epithet he asked me not to print. And Fox, he said, laughed to the point of tears.


THE GOVERNOR

There were some sharp words on the House floor. O'Neill, surprised by the passion of the opposition, recalls stepping aside at one point to get away from it all. But in the end, the vote was lopsided — 54-21. In the Senate, it passed 34-2.

The bill was in Governor Chafee's lap now.

Voter ID opponents felt reasonably confident they could win him over. They'd spoken with members of the administration who were opposed to the measure. And they figured Chafee's good government instincts would tilt their way.

But Chafee is a mercurial sort — an independent who's made his share of unexpected decisions. And on July 1, the day after the General Assembly approved the measure, it was the proponents who were ushered in to see the governor first: Brien, Caranci from the Secretary of State's office, and the two minority legislators who'd championed the bill, Metts and Williams.

Williams's stories of her own stolen vote and of the double-dipping cutie were tantalizing enough. But her signature tale was more complicated, more opaque, and more affecting.

On a recent afternoon in her basement office at the State House, she spooled it out for me: a couple of years ago, she says, an illegal immigrant named her as his mother-in-law and her daughter as his wife on a fraudulent passport application.

Federal agents investigated, she says, and showed her a picture of the suspected fraudster. The representative says she confronted him on the street sometime later and learned he was offered a passport — use Williams' name, his handlers told him, to grease the skids — in exchange for impersonating a voter and convincing others to do the same.

Williams says her own investigation of the matter pointed to a larger world of recruiters paid to identify registered voters who cast ballots infrequently and to send impersonators in their place. She implies that this broader network of recruiters used her name improperly, too, but she declines to offer details, saying it might endanger her family.

The saga has clearly taken a toll. "I shred everything," she says, her voice cracking, her eyes welling. "I'm super paranoid since this incident. My bank accounts have been closed — shut down — they want[ed] to know who I was."

She told some version of this story to the governor, she says, explaining the paranoia that had gripped her life, the struggle her family had gone through. "He stopped me and said, 'I had enough,' " she recalls.

"He was on it," Williams says. "He was listening."

Chafee would later say, in a statement explaining his signature on the bill, that he found the concerns raised by "minority communities . . . particularly compelling" — a justification that opponents dismissed as absurd, given the opposition of groups like the NAACP.

But as Brien left the governor's office, he was far from convinced that Chafee was on his side. The governor, he says, was non-committal. Brien figured there was maybe a 20-percent chance he would sign the bill. And if he vetoed the measure, it seemed highly unlikely the legislative leadership would reconvene the General Assembly for an override.

Across the hallway, the opponents were waiting for their turn with the governor: Brock of Ocean State Action, Brown of the ACLU, John Marion of Common Cause Rhode Island, Nick Figueroa of the Latino advocacy organization Univocal Legislative Minority Advisory Coalition, Kate Bowden of the Rhode Island Disability Law Center, and state Representative Michael Marcello.

Brien considered Marcello's presence a significant breach of etiquette — once the General Assembly has spoken on a bill, he says, members should not be lobbying the governor for a veto. He says he snapped at Marcello; Marcello says he replied that a bill isn't law until the governor has signed it.

In Chafee's office, the opponents made their case. Along the way, they pointed out that five governors, from New Hampshire to North Carolina, had recently vetoed voter ID bills; Chafee noted that he'd served in the US Senate with one of them, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton.

Marcello says he left the meeting reasonably confident that the governor would veto the measure.

The next day, a Saturday, deputy secretary of state Caranci was at a Dunkin' Donuts buying an iced tea when Christine Hunsinger, spokeswoman for the governor, called. Chafee, she said, was giving serious consideration to the bill and she had a few more questions.

Voter ID would be signed.

The governor held a private signing ceremony at the State House that day for a civil unions bill that passed at the close of the session. Fox was on hand. And when he ran into Chafee in the parking lot later, the governor delivered the news: he had signed voter ID.

Brien was sitting on his rider lawn mower in Woonsocket, a few Coors Lights to lighten the mood, when he got the text message from Fox. "I almost fell off the friggin' thing," he says.

After years of beating his head against the wall at the State House, he'd pulled off a stunning, improbable victory. He called Williams to deliver the news, then his co-sponsors: O'Neill, Republican Joseph Trillo, and Rhode Island Tea Party favorite Doreen Costa.

Chafee went off on vacation — sailing with his wife — with no formal announcement from his office about the signing. And it was not until the Tea Party sent out a Tuesday morning email blast, hailing enactment of the law, that opponents suspected the worst.

Brock was sitting in her Cranston office when Providence Journal reporter Katherine Gregg called with the news. She punched the wall in frustration. Ocean State Action and its labor allies had worked hard to get Chafee in office.

They knew he wouldn't side with them on every issue. But this felt like a matter of core values. What did he stand for? What did the Rhode Island Democratic Party stand for?

This just wasn't supposed to happen. Not here.

But it had.

Link to original article from The Providence Phoenix


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