Georgia's Republican-controlled state election board has decided to require voters to present government-issued ID cards in order to cast ballots in primary elections only weeks away.
The U.S. Justice Department cleared a Republican-backed voter ID law June 28 requiring Georgians voting at the polls to present a driver's license or other form of government-issued picture ID. The election board, over dissent by the lone Democrat member, decided the next day to require IDs in the July 18 primary, despite concerns about insufficient time for voter education.
Supporters of the law, including sponsor Cecil Staton, a religious publisher elected to the state senate in 2004, say it is needed to stop voter fraud. Opponents, including the state's black legislative caucus, say it discriminates against African Americans and the elderly.
A judge blocked an earlier version last year, saying it amounted to an unconstitutional poll tax. Lawmakers this year passed an amended version to make voter IDs free to anyone who needs them in all 159 counties.
Secretary of State Cathy Cox, the state's head election official, said about 675,000 of 5 million registered Georgia voters currently have no driver's license or government-issued ID. A Democrat and vocal opponent of the law, Cox said those lacking proper ID are disproportionately black and elderly.
Comparing the state voter database against a database of Georgians holding driver's licenses or non-driving ID cards, Cox found that nearly one in four registered voters age 65 and older do not have proper ID to vote in the upcoming primary. The number is even higher for elderly African-Americans--a third do not have a driver's license or ID.
Cox said blacks in general are more likely to be affected than whites. African-Americans currently comprise 27.8 percent of the voter roll, but they represent 35.6 percent of those lacking a driver's license or Georgia ID.
"There can be no more striking evidence of the flawed public policy behind Georgia's current photo ID requirement than the fact that nearly a quarter of our state's elderly voters, and fully a third of older African-American voters, lack the most common form of photo ID now required by Georgia law," said Secretary Cox.
"As I have warned since a restrictive photo ID requirement was first proposed years ago, and after it was first passed by the Senate in 2001, and when it was considered in 2005, such a law erects significant barriers to the most vulnerable in our society--especially our elderly," Cox added. "While some of these registrants may have other acceptable government-issued photo identification, we can be certain that a very large number of voters do not currently possess the documentation they need to vote in person."
Supporters say requiring a person to prove his or her identity in order to vote is a reasonable safeguard against voter fraud. Critics say the real motivation is to disenfranchise enough voters likely to cast ballots for Democrats to make a difference in close elections. The law does not affect absentee ballots, where most documented cases of voter fraud have occurred.
Georgia's law had to be pre-cleared by the U.S. Justice Department because of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which allowed the federal government to guarantee voter rights regardless of race or color in states where African-Americans were formerly disenfranchised.
Considered the most successful piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress, the act has been extended four times. Parts of it will expire in 2007 unless Congress renews it for another 25 years.
Southern Republicans in the House of Representatives have slowed passage, objecting to several details. The Senate has not yet taken up the bill.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.