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Civil Rights

The Rhode Island Senate voting record on civil liberties is pretty dismal

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The importance of defending rights against unpopular sentiment cannot be overstated – today the rights being defended may not apply to you. Tomorrow, they very well could.


RI Rank just released their findings on the civil liberties voting habits of our State Senate. Using the ACLU of Rhode Island‘s support or opposition to particular bills in seven categories, Senators were ranked by their votes. As RI Rank writes, “the biggest surprise… will be the below average performance Senate-wide, including even the more popular members of the State Senate.”

See: RI Senate Civil Liberties Voting Rankings

The seven categories considered were Due Process, 1st Amendment, Privacy, Voting, Worker rights and two “catch-all” categories: Civil Rights and Criminal Justice.

Topping the list was Senator Samuel Bell (Democrat, District 5, Providence), followed by Senator Frank Lombardo (Democrat, District 25, Johnston), a staunch conservative who just last week voted against a $1 minimum wage increase. His score here is quite impressive, and a surprise to me.

Where the Senate seems to have really missed the mark is in the area of criminal justice, perhaps reflecting an outdated “tough on crime” approach that has come increasingly under attack in recent years as the costs, both socially and economically, of incarcerating people continues to climb.


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Privacy rights also seem especially problematic in the new ranking, as our elected officials too easily allow our rights to be co-opted by government through surveillance or by corporations, who treat our personal data as a commodity.

Voting rights in Rhode Island have been under attack since Rhode Island became the first state with a Democratically controlled legislature to pass Voter ID. Smart ways to increase access to voting, like early voting, continue to be blocked by leadership (and their followers) who don’t want to face re-election with new rules about who gets to vote and when.

Over all, this ranking provides a great place to start the conversation with your Senator about what’s important to you, as a resident of Rhode Island, when it comes to civil rights. As the authors of this Ranking write,

“The importance of defending rights against unpopular sentiment cannot be overstated – today the rights being defended may not apply to you. Tomorrow, they very well could.”


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Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade. atomicsteve@gmail.com