ATLANTA - A federal court Tuesday temporarily overturned a controversial new Georgia law requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls.
In a lawsuit filed by a coalition of voting rights advocates, U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy of Rome granted a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the law.
Unless the state undertakes and wins an emergency appeal to stay the injunction, the decision means next month's local elections across the state will be conducted under the old law. It allows voters to present one of 17 forms of identification, including some that don't contain photos.
The new law, which passed the Republican-controlled General Assembly virtually along party lines, narrows the acceptable forms of ID to six, all containing government-issued photos such as driver's licenses or passports.
In his ruling, Murphy said such a significant reduction of options "unduly burdens the right to vote," while the fee the law establishes for voters who don't have a photo ID but want one "constitutes a poll tax."
"The court ... has great respect for the Georgia legislature," the judge wrote. "The court, however, simply has more respect for the Constitution."
Republican lawmakers pitched the photo ID requirement during this year's legislative session as the best way to ensure the integrity of the vote in Georgia by preventing fraud.
But Democrats accused GOP leaders of acting to suppress turnout among black, elderly and low-income voters - groups more likely to vote Democratic - by making it harder for them to cast their ballots.
Secretary of State Cathy Cox, a Democrat, voiced those same concerns last week during lengthy testimony at a hearing on the lawsuit.
But following Tuesday's ruling, Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, who sponsored the Senate version of the photo ID bill, said the measure included several provisions to help voters without photo IDs get them.
He cited sections of the bill allowing indigent voters to receive a free photo ID by signing an affidavit asserting that they couldn't afford the $20 fee, letting voters use expired driver's licenses at the polls and giving voters without photo IDs the option of voting by absentee ballot.
"It's frustrating to me that many of the provisions of our bill are rarely mentioned by those who criticize the bill," Staton said. "These were put into the bill to mitigate the very concerns they express."
House Speaker Glenn Richardson noted that the legislation, signed by Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue in May, was then reviewed and approved by the U.S. Justice Department as being in compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Richardson, R-Hiram, said the law isn't any stricter in its requirement of a photo ID than many businesses people deal with every day.
"This judge apparently doesn't think that the voting process is worthy of the same scrutiny required to board an airplane, to write a check or to rent a movie," he said.
But Chris Riggall, Cox's spokesman, said voting should be treated differently.
"There's nothing in the U.S. Constitution about renting a video or getting on an airplane," he said. "But there's a lot in there setting standards for who gets to vote."
Neil Bradley, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project in Atlanta, one of the groups that brought the suit, said the law's provisions for absentee balloting also were a key factor in Tuesday's ruling.
He said allowing Georgians to vote absentee without showing a photo ID while imposing that requirement on those who show up at the polls not only defeats the law's purported purpose - reducing voter fraud - but violates the Constitution's equal-protection provision.
"It literally makes no sense to bar people from voting in person and then say, 'You can go vote absentee,'" Bradley said.
While the ruling likely will affect next month's local elections, Riggall said it will not change the results of several special elections that have occurred since the law took effect on July 1.
State Rep. Melvin Everson, R-Snellville, was elected last month in Gwinnett County to succeed Phyllis Miller, who resigned to take a juvenile court judgeship.
Ed Tarver, D-Augusta, was chosen by voters in Senate District 22 to replace a former senator recently convicted of numerous fraud charges.
And voters in Cobb County narrowly approved a major sales tax referendum.