He said he was helping then-Senator Robert Kells fight off a challenge from an upstart Pichardo when he came upon the distraught incumbent. "Bill," he recalls Kells saying, "people are pulling up in vans, I can see them giving them lunch. They're not my constituents.

"Everyone," Walaska tells me later, "knows we have a lot of illegals in Rhode Island."

But immigration was hardly the only concern. Many of the legislators I spoke with had some tale of their own — of a bureaucratic snafu or, perhaps, something more sinister — that seemed to justify passage of voter ID.

Representative J. Patrick O'Neill, a Pawtucket Democrat who serves as House Majority Whip, says that one year, six voter registration cards addressed to people he'd never heard of showed up at a house he owned. He never found any record that the mystery voters had cast ballots; someone, he figures, was just messing with him. But the experience was disquieting.

The tale gets at an obvious, but important point: voter fraud — real or perceived — is something that touches state legislators directly. Every two years, they devote endless hours to small-universe elections that can easily be tipped by a dozen votes here or there.

"Elections," the whip says. "are so personal."

O'Neill, who like Fox was a co-sponsor of the voter ID bill, says he wasn't prepared to "die on a hill" for the measure. And the members he canvassed in his role as whip didn't consider it a top priority. But they thought it was a good idea.

And when Metts and other minority legislators came out in favor of the bill, it provided plenty of political cover for anyone predisposed to the measure. "Senator Metts," Brien tells me, "had systematically blown up at least half the arguments about who would get disenfranchised by voter ID."


'IT'S GOING TO MOVE'

It must have been some sort of holiday, says Kate Brock, executive director of the liberal advocacy group Ocean State Action, because she was the only one in the office that April afternoon. She remembers being particularly disappointed that she couldn't access the coffee machine upstairs.

But then, a jolt of a different kind. The phone rang. It was Steve Brown of the Rhode Island affiliate of the ACLU.

"Voter ID," he said, "it's going to move."

Brock, like the rest of the Rhode Island left, was caught off-guard. Voter ID bills had been introduced for several years running, but had never gone all that far. Now, Metts' measure had been posted for a Senate Judiciary Committee vote. And opponents knew what that meant: it was greased for passage in the full Senate.

Work began immediately to build a coalition of opposition groups. And on May 4, a day after Senate Judiciary signed off on voter ID, 20 organizations staged a press conference to voice their opposition. "People fought, bled and died [for the right] to vote," said Jim Vincent, executive director of the Rhode Island NAACP.

The gathering won a brief mention in the Providence Journal. And by that point, several national advocacy groups were taking notice: The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law was in touch with good government group Common Cause Rhode Island. Howard Dean's Democracy for America political action committee was checking in with Ocean State Action.

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