Controversy continues to churn over the issue of voter identification one month after the General Assembly passed a voter ID bill. Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed it into law on July 2.
Under the new law, voters in the 2012 election will be asked to show some form of identification; in 2014, they’ll be asked for an ID with a photo.
Opponents have continued to complain that it's an expensive solution -- cost estimates for providing free IDs vary widely -- for a problem that essentially doesn't exist. They also maintain it will lower turnout of the poor, elderly and minorities.
Supporters say requiring an ID is essential to the integrity of an election.
The law allows registered voters without an ID to cast a provisional ballot. That ballot will be counted later if the local Board of Canvassers determines that the signature on the ballot application matches the signature on the person's registration.
On July 19, GoLocalProv published a column by Travis Rowley, pundit, chairman of the Rhode Island Young Republicans, and a supporter of voter ID, arguing that past abuses made the new law necessary. (The column grew out of a challenge he accepted during the July 8 edition of Channel 36's "A Lively Experiment" to cite a single conviction for voter fraud in the state.)
In the column, Rowley talked about cases in East Providence involving people who voted where they had their businesses -- not where they actually lived. He mentioned anecdotes of people supposedly posing as other voters, citing the claim of Rep. Anastasia Williams, a Providence Democrat.
Williams says that she and her daughter went to their polling place in 2006, only to discover that two other people had used their names. (Rowley reported, incorrectly, that it was last year. Williams never filed a complaint.)
At the end of his column, Rowley played the illegal immigrant card:
"The RI Board of Elections has heard official testimony from Providence residents who claim to have witnessed known illegal aliens voting in local elections," he said.
We were intrigued.
So we called Robert Kando, executive director of the board, to find out about these cases.
Kando said that during his six-year tenure with the board, it has heard just one such claim. A check of Journal archives uncovered no cases and former elections board Chairman Roger Begin, who served from 1994 to 2006, said he could not recall any instances.
The case Kando recalled "was during one of our recount hearings -- it was not the last election, it was a while ago -- where a losing candidate or the candidate's wife, who was looking for a new election, said, 'We saw people who we know aren't U.S. citizens and we know they voted.' The question then was, 'Who?' They said, 'It's just someone that we knew. But we didn't know their names.' "
Given that lack of specifics, Kando told us, "there was no need to ask any more questions." In addition, no complaint was ever filed with the board.
So we sent messages to Rowley on July 22, via email and his website, to tell him what Kando said and to ask if he had additional information. While we waited for a response -- we have yet to receive one -- we did some further checking.
With Kando's help, we went back and checked the records, including listening to the tape of the Sept. 20, 2006, meeting that served as the source of Kando's statement. It turned out that his recollection of that meeting five years ago was off a bit.
The agenda included complaints from two unsuccessful Providence candidates who said they had seen evidence of voter fraud. The board took testimony from both Laura Perez and Eulogio Acevedo, along with hearing from Acevedo's wife, Maryelyn. Contrary to Kando's recollection, the Acevedos made no reference to fraud by illegal immigrants.
But Perez did. She had lost to Grace Diaz in the District 11 primary and in her complaint letter she said, "I personally witnessed an individual who voted but is not an American citizen." She reaffirmed that statement during the hearing. Her other allegations of irregularities involved five people, but none of those complaints involved citizenship status.
The board voted to send both complaints to the state police for investigation. Perez told us police never contacted her. Perez's letter gave no names. She told us she knew the identity of the woman -- and that the woman was in the country illegally -- but wasn't going to reveal the name until the state police contacted her.
State police Lt. John Lemont, assistant detective commander, said he recalled the case, one of several that police were probing at the time. But in her letter, "there wasn't information specific enough to go forward with an investigation. We therefore closed the investigation."
Asked if he's heard of other allegations of voter fraud involving illegal immigrants, Lemont said, "I'm unaware of any other complaint, other than this one person." There have been successful prosecutions, but those have been "based on people voting in the wrong district."
The Sept. 20, 2006, elections board meeting also included a presentation by Terry Gorman, president of the then-fledgling Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement. He was seeking support for a voter ID law. Gorman offered no evidence of voter fraud by illegal immigrants.
The only other person to speak on the topic that day was Angel Taveras, now mayor of Providence, who was at the meeting to represent a client but stressed that he was testifying as a private citizen. He complained that citizenship status was being singled out. "We should make sure there was NO fraudulent voting," he said, predicting that if an investigation is undertaken, "I think what you're going to find is there is very little, if any, of it."
Perez herself, who believes a lot of the votes cast in her district were done by people paid to engage in voter fraud, said she doubts that many undocumented immigrants were engaging in the practice. "Undocumented people are less likely to run that type of game," she said. "They're not going to take the risk. For $100? Hell no."
So, in summary, when Rowley talks about the "official testimony from Providence residents who claim to have witnessed known illegal aliens voting," his statement implies there were several complaints.
There was just one.
There's a grain of truth to his claim. Perez did report one case. But because Rowley substantially overstated the evidence regarding illegal immigrant voting, the Truth-O-Meter rates his statement Mostly False.
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(We amended this item on Aug. 1 to reflect Perez's claim that the woman she complained about was in the country illegally.)