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Georgia is the hardest place to vote in America

The nation marks the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on Aug. 6. Georgia officials ought to do something special on that day.

How about unveiling another commemorative bronze plaque on the Capitol lawn? It could be appropriately inscribed:

"Welcome to Georgia, the toughest place in America for eligible, registered voters to cast their ballots. - Georgia League of Women Voters"

Four decades after enactment of the nation's most important guarantee of minority voting rights, Georgia still stands as a national disgrace on ballot-box access. In this important anniversary year, our state government has renewed efforts to make it difficult for poor people and rural blacks to vote.

In recent months, Georgia has become a high-profile national symbol of voting-rights retrogression. We already have one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country. The 2005 General Assembly passed a law to make certain that turnout dips even further.

The usually sedate Georgia League of Women Voters is among two dozen groups assailing Georgia government for trying to chill minority voting. They have asked the feds to intervene before it is too late.

And the Justice Department is investigating.

Secretary of State Cathy Cox, the state's chief election officer, is appalled at the state government's drift into a 1950s attitude on suffrage.

The New York Times ridiculed and denounced Georgia last week for "putting up obstacles for black and poor voters." The world is watching and shaking its head.

What's the cause of the uproar?

The Legislature has passed a law prohibiting any person from voting at a polling place who does not have a driver's license, state-issued photo ID, U.S. passport or federal picture ID. Other forms of identification (Social Security card or birth certificate, for instance) will no longer be accepted. If the law stands, an estimated 150,000 Georgians will be disenfranchised. Gov. Sonny Perdue and his cohorts declared the measure was needed to combat "voter fraud" at the polling place.

Voter fraud? What voter fraud? Almost no instances of voter fraud involving IDs have been reported in Georgia.

However, the Secretary of State's Office has received reams of voter fraud complaints regarding the state's absentee ballot procedures that require no IDs - only a signature from a faceless mail-in respondent. Confronted with an abundance of evidence of voter fraud by mail, the Georgia Legislature moved as we have come to expect it to act. The legislators voted to relax and liberalize absentee-ballot regulations and make snail-mail voting easier. By the way, primary election records show that most absentee ballots are cast by white Republicans. The Legislature is controlled by white Republicans.

Meanwhile, our lawmakers were determined to prevent old people, poor people and people of color from trying to trick poll workers with phony birth certificates - even if such an act rarely, if ever, occurred. These presumably deceitful folks vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

House Bill 244, passed in the closing hours of the last legislative session, accomplished much more than simply repressing black and elderly turnout. Its outcome is designed to incense and anger certain white people. The bill might have been nicknamed the "Bring the Flaggers Back to the Polls Act."

The Justice Department is currently reviewing HB 244 to determine whether it violates the Voting Rights Act. A ruling is expected early next month.

If DOJ tosses out the bill, demagogues will immediately rail against the feds for meddling in state affairs.

If the Justice Department lets the bill stand, the Georgia ID act is certain to become part of the coming congressional debate for extending the Voting Rights Act and keeping Georgia on the list of "special states" not trusted to protect all citizens' liberties.

That, in turn, will fire up again the Washington-hating "fergit h---" crowd and create new obstacles for Democratic candidates.

Small wonder that Gov. Sonny Perdue smiled so broadly when he signed this voting rights chiller into law.

On another election front, 4th District Rep. Cynthia McKinney has called for an investigation of Georgia electronic voting equipment, claiming numerous instances of equipment failure in 2002. Best known for her off-the-wall ethnic slurs and all-out opposition to defense appropriations, the DeKalb County lawmaker's sudden interest in computer voting is seen as a shot of criticism at Secretary of State Cox's Democratic primary candidacy for governor. Cox received national recognition in 2002 for introducing electronic voting in Georgia with few problems. (Cox's Democratic Party was soundly drubbed in the state's first fully computerized election.)

Congresswoman McKinney is reportedly siding with Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor in his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. McKinney and her father, former state Rep. Billy McKinney, were once regarded as pivotal behind-the-scenes leaders in attracting black voters in DeKalb County.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.