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.

Harold_Metts_main
Harold Metts

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.

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