Amidst much fanfare a statue of Thomas Wilson Dorr, Rhode Island governor (sort of), insurrectionist (kind of) and hero of the working class (definitely) was unveiled yesterday at the Rhode Island State House. The wooden, painted sculpture that has been placed outside the Senate Chamber is a gift from Rhode Island Historian Laureate Dr. Patrick Conley. The statue portrays Dorr with a serious, thousand yard stare, as if he is looking at us from the year 1842, and perhaps finding us wanting.
Dorr is best known for lending his name to the Dorr Rebellion, an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Rhode Island government that at the time, limited the right to vote only to white males with property valued over $134, as per the Royal Charter. Dorr wanted to see the vote opened to all white men. (Dorr may have privately held that free blacks and even women should have the right to vote, but that must have seemed politically impossible in antebellum Rhode Island.)
Though Dorr’s rebellion failed, and his health was broken by a year in prison, ultimately his suggested reforms were adopted, and over the years suffrage, the right to vote, has flowered and grown to encompass more and more citizens. A statue to Dorr and his heroic efforts is entirely appropriate.
However, as Rhode Island State Senators pass by the statue of Dorr at the Senate Chamber entrance, will they pause to reflect on the irony that they are members of a legislative body that rolled back gains in universal suffrage through the enactment of Voter ID laws?
On average, Voter ID laws “seem to decrease turnout by about 2 percent as a share of the registered voter population” according to a 2012 analysis by Nate Silver. In Rhode Island, this translates into about 16,500 less voters. This is more than the total number of people from Rhode Island who voted in the 1848 presidential election, and not too far from the total number of people who voted in 1852. (17,005)
In essence, the Rhode Island General Assembly has disenfranchised, through its Voter ID legislation, more voters than Dorr enfranchised through his rebellion.
Did I say irony? How about hypocrisy? Governor Chafee, who signed Voter ID into law, stood outside the Senate Chamber that helped pass this law, to celebrate the accomplishments of a man who gave his health and ultimately his life for the exactly the opposite cause.
Speaker of the House Gordon Fox has indicated that he might push to repeal the Voter ID laws in this state. Senate President Paiva-Weed seems less inclined to do so. Repealing Voter ID seems like a tough fight to win… but then there are the eyes of Thomas Dorr, looking at us from the past, silently, sternly judging as we enter the Senate Chambers.
How many Senators can bear to meet his gaze?