A federal appeals court on Thursday kept in place an injunction blocking enforcement of Georgia's voter ID law, while sending the case back to a lower court in light of a new bill passed by state lawmakers last month.
The procedural vote was viewed as a win for opponents of the law. Lawyers for the plaintiffs had asked the three-judge panel to send the case back to U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy of Rome, Ga.
That is the judge who in October blocked implementation of a similar law that passed Georgia's Legislature last year, mostly along party lines, requiring voters to show a government-issued ID at the polls.
Murphy said the old law is unconstitutional, because it required people to pay in order to obtain an ID. He compared it to a poll tax, a type of law used to discriminate against poor and black voters in many Southern states during segregation.
The new law, S.B. 84, attempts to get around the ruling by making voter ID cards available free of charge and in all 159 Georgia counties. The law, sponsored by Macon Republican Cecil Staton, passed the state Senate 32-22 and the House 111-60. Gov. Sonny Perdue signed it into law Jan. 26.
Supporters hope to have the law in place for this year's elections, which start with primaries on July 18. It still must pass several hurdles, however.
Like other states with a history of denying voter rights to African-Americans, any change in Georgia's voting laws must be cleared by the U.S. Justice Department.
Opponents of the new law, who say it still burdens the poor, elderly and minorities, have begun drafting complaints to the Justice Department, which has not yet received the bill for pre-clearance.
Last year the White House approved the earlier version, even though Justice Department lawyers advised against pre-clearance, saying they viewed it as discriminatory.
Georgia is one of eight states that have adopted voter ID bills since 2002. Experts say problems in Florida in the 2000 elections prompted some concern about voter fraud, but critics say Republicans, who control both houses of Congress and the White House, want to shave off enough voters likely to cast ballots for Democrats to make a difference in close elections.
Thursday's ruling means that court proceedings case scheduled for March 1 to determine the legality of last year's law will not be held. Defending the law is expected to cost the state about $2.5 million.
Republican leaders argued in Senate hearings that the measure is needed to battle voter fraud and ensure fair elections.
"Isn't it our responsibility, ladies and gentlemen of the Senate, isn't it our responsibility to minimize the potential for fraud?" asked Staton, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Among criticism of the new law is that, like the old one, it does nothing to address the problem of voter fraud in absentee ballots. Critics say that omission proves the motive is to single out a single class of voters, rather than to address the larger question of the integrity of elections.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.