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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Rhode Island Primary Tests New Voter ID Law


PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Candy McSwain and Bonnie Stevenson, two poll workers in this city's diverse Elmwood neighborhood, peered at Jeziel Jared Lopez's passport and expired state ID card and consulted the state's new list of acceptable forms of voter identification.

“It says U.S. passport,” said Ms. McSwain, pointing to the list.

“This is O.K.,” Ms. Stevenson said, clearing the way for Mr. Lopez, 18, to vote for the first time.

Rhode Island's state primary on Tuesday gave its new voter identification law its most strenuous exercise yet, stirring dissent and praise from voters who lined up with ID cards, while officials reported few identification-related voting problems.

The law, wh ich went into effect this year, requires voters to show a photo ID, bank statement or government-issued document before they are allowed to vote. Its list of accepted forms of identification will become more restrictive in 2014, when only photo IDs will be accepted.

The state's list of acceptable identification includes IDs from workplaces and gyms, making the law more flexible than similar ones passed in states like Pennsylvania. It also allows voters without IDs to fill out a provisional ballot.

The law was in effect for the presidential primary and two municipal special elections earlier this year; in those elections, of about 25,000 ballots cast, fewer than 30 provisional ballots were needed for voter-related issues - one of which was rejected, according to Chris Barnett, spokesman for the secretary of state.

By early Tuesday evening, the secretary of state's office was aware of only two uses of provisional ballots, af ter visits to 13 polling locations.

“This is as smooth as we had hoped it would go,” said Mr. Barnett, who said his office had distributed more than 700 free identification cards to voters who requested them before the election.

In Elmwood, Robert Emmanuel, a singer, had to leave the polling place to fetch his ID, but he was unperturbed. “I don't see why it's so controversial,” Mr. Emmanuel said. “People need to prove who they are.”

An Elmwood poll worker, who said her name was simply Raffini, wondered if the low number of requests for provisional ballots was because people without ID had decided to stay home. “To tell you the truth, the ID issue's probably just going to make people not come,” she said.

That has been a concern for advocacy organizations like Rhode Island's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which said it had received two complaints related to the identification requirement on Tuesday.

“I don't thi nk there's any question that there are people who aren't aware of the broad acceptability of documents for this election,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the state's chapter. “This was totally unnecessary and will certainly have an adverse effect on certain categories of voters - poor, racial minorities,” repeating a criticism often levied by those opposed to voter ID laws.

David Thomas, a disabled voter in Elmwood, said he was changing his party affiliation to the Green Party from the Democratic Party, in part because of some Rhode Island Democrats' support for the law. “I feel like a piece of cattle, basically,” Mr. Thomas said. “You're erasing a certain group of people off of the block. I look at it as a new Jim Crow situation.”

But other voters in the neighborhood showered praise upon the law.

“I think it avoids fraud and makes things clear - you vote and you say who you are,” said Rosa Perez, a registered Democrat who teache s math at a public high school. Like several other voters interviewed in Providence on Tuesday, Ms. Perez pointed out that the policy was consistent with that of her native country, the Dominican Republic.

“In Latin America, people show identification - you have to show ID,” said Ms. Perez. “I think it's right.”