Voter ID Irony

The Providence Journal has a front-page story today on legislation, passed last year, that makes it easier to cast an absentee ballot. A voter no longer has to attest to extenuating circumstances - no longer has to swear, for instance, that he'll be hospitalized on election day - to get a mail-in ballot. Rather, he can simply say he "may not be able to vote" at his regular polling place on election day.

Early indications, as the story suggests, are that applications for absentee ballots are up under the new rules.

The piece appeared next to another on the political fallout of Congressional candidate Anthony Gemma's (as yet unsubstantiated) charges that Congressman David Cicilline has engaged in systematic voter fraud over the course of his political career.

The ProJo, oddly, didn't suggest what one story may have to do with the other. But I will.

There is some concern, in political circles, that loosened restrictions on absentee ballots will open a new avenue for voter fraud. Indeed, Gemma suggested at his press conference Wednesday that one reason he announced the event a week in advance was to signal to the Cicilline camp that he was on the lookout for fraud in the run-up to the Tuesday deadline to apply for absentee ballots for the September 11 primary.

Will Rhode Island politicians actually abuse the loosened absentee ballot process? I can't say, of course. But I can say this: the opening of this potential avenue to fraud is rich with irony.

The General Assembly passed the absentee ballot legislation during the same session it passed a much higher profile voter ID bill, which was designed to clamp down on voter fraud (credit where credit is due, here: ProJo columnist Ed Fitzpatrick recently made a similar point; and rifuture's Sam Howard eloquently touches on the issue).

And it's not just that the two bills seemingly run at cross purposes. The General Assembly may have actually done more harm than good, vis-a-vis voter fraud.

The voter ID bill, which requires voters to show identification at the polls, was designed to shut down on one kind of fraud in particular: voter impersonation. But as critics have pointed out, there are no documented cases of such fraud in the state.

And while there is no treasure trove of absentee-ballot fraud cases, the ProJo points out today that there were significant concerns about this kind of fraud by supporters of then-Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci in the early 1980s.

Moreover, as a general proposition, it's easier to imagine voters committing fraud at a remove than walking into polling stations and lying to poll workers.

This is not to say that making it easier to vote by absentee ballot was a mistake. It seems a clear net positive. But the irony, as I said, is rich.




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