Voting rights at risk, critics say
By Sarah Thomas, Globe Correspondent | February 4, 2010
If three members of the Marlborough City Council have their way, the city will soon make a bold change in the way it conducts elections; a change that critics say would disenfranchise some voters.
Councilor at Large Stephen Levy, Ward 2 Councilor Paul Ferro, and Ward 3 Councilor Matt Elder have proposed requiring all prospective voters to show identification, including a photo, before being allowed to cast a ballot. The requirement, if approved by the City Council and state Legislature, would be a first for Massachusetts, where state law stipulates only that voters must provide identification if they are challenged by poll workers.
Seven states require photo IDs for voting, while another 18, including Connecticut, ask for some type of identification at the polls.
The three councilors say their proposal, which has been referred to the council’s Legislative and Legal Affairs Committee, is a bulwark against voter fraud. They say the impetus came from citizens who suggested the change after bringing their IDs to vote in the special US Senate election on Jan. 19.
“In this country, we have to show an ID to get a six-pack of Bud Light but not to elect a president? That doesn’t make sense,” Elder said after a recent City Council meeting.
But state Senator James Eldridge, a Marlborough Democrat who opposes the proposal, said the fear of voter fraud has been overblown.
“I had an aide call the Marlborough city clerk to see if there had been any voter fraud for this law to target, and she said that in 35 years she had not seen one incidence,” Eldridge said. “With all due respect, this is fear mongering.”
He said the measure would run counter to the spirit of legislation he has proposed, the Freedom to Vote Act, that would make it easier for Massachusetts citizens to take part in elections.
“There is proof that laws like this disenfranchise people,” Eldridge said of the City Council proposal. “Senior citizens and immigrants have been denied the right to vote. There is no proof, however, that measures that make it easier to vote, like same-day registration, contribute to voter fraud.”
Eldridge, who has served for six years on the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Election Laws, said that bills to require a photo ID for voting are proposed on Beacon Hill every year, and never make it out of committee.
Brian McNiff, spokesman for Secretary of State William Galvin, said that there were two suspected incidents of voter fraud reported statewide in last month’s US Senate election; both were due to clerical errors, and neither happened in Marlborough.
“In many cases, people claim fraud during elections but can’t bring proof,” McNiff said. “You can be challenged if there is reasonable suspicion.”
During the recent City Council meeting, Ferro said the law could be useful in tracing certain kinds of fraud.
“If the fraudsters are complete morons, and try to vote under their names twice, we can verify that” under the proposed bylaw, he said, adding that there had been incidents in Marlborough where this had been tried.
At least some of the incidents can be traced to Marlborough’s Democratic City Committee chairman, Thomas Hill, who says he regularly tries to vote twice, once by absentee ballot and once at the polls. He describes the exercise both as a prank and a demonstration of how well current voter-fraud prevention measures work. He said he has never been able to cast two ballots.
“Everyone takes it in a humorous spirit; it’s a total nonsense thing,” said Hill, who opposes the photo ID proposal. “These laws end up hurting women who leave their pocketbooks in the car. Women and the poor; that’s who these laws victimize, and they usually vote Democrat.”
The councilors in support of the measure said that there was nothing in state law to prevent IDs being required, and that the US Supreme Court had upheld a similar law as constitutional in Indiana in 2008. (However, in September, a new challenge to the law by the League of Women Voters caused the ruling to be overturned by an Indiana appellate court.)
Amy Loveless, director of the Marlborough Council on Aging, says that the law could work against some seniors, since many older residents surrender their driver’s licenses, by far the most common form of photo ID.
“The reality of seniors not having a photo ID in various stages of their older adult life is an accurate portrayal,” Loveless said. “I hope this law would have an accommodation for seniors, if passed. They represent the best of the best in terms of fulfilling their civic duties.”
Councilor Levy also expressed concern about seniors’ voting, and said that the final version of the measure was far from shaped, let alone passed.
“We’ll definitely hash out the pros and cons,” Levy said. “But you should at least have to verify you are who you say you are.”