ATLANTA - A Republican-controlled committee Monday approved a new version of a bill requiring Georgians to show a photo ID at the polls, over the objections of Democrats and voting rights advocates.
The bill is aimed at concerns about the photo ID law the General Assembly passed last year that prompted a federal judge to issue a temporary injunction last fall prohibiting the state from enforcing it.
Under the new measure, which is expected to reach the House floor later this week, Georgians who don't have a photo ID would be able to obtain one for free.
Also, photo IDs would be available at county registrar's offices in all of Georgia's 159 counties.
In last October's ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy compared the photo ID requirement to an illegal poll tax because people would have had to pay a fee to get one and IDs would have been available only at the state's 41 driver's license offices.
"We want to make sure that it is as easy as it can be for people to get an ID,'' Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, chief sponsor of photo ID legislation in the Senate, told members of the House Governmental Affairs Committee. "Free IDs, easily accessible and, yet, something that will assure us in Georgia that our elections are free and fair.''
Throughout last year's debate, Republicans said that requiring a photo ID would be the best way to prevent voter fraud.
But Democrats and voting rights advocates who attended the committee meeting on Monday, opening day of this year's session, argued that more fraud takes place in absentee balloting than at the polls. Yet, the Republican-backed bill enacted last year doesn't require Georgians wishing to vote absentee to show a photo ID.
"We're trying to fix a problem that simply does not exist,'' said Cass Robinson, state president of the AARP.
The bill's opponents also questioned whether registrar's offices in rural counties, which typically have small staffs, would be capable of handling a deluge of requests for photo IDs.
But their most fundamental complaint was that requiring a photo ID to vote would place an unfair burden on large groups of Georgians who don't have passports or driver's licenses, including the elderly and poor people.
"This bill will disenfranchise thousands of Georgians,'' Robinson said.
Civil rights activist Joe Beasley, Southern regional director for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, charged Republicans with seeking to discourage minority voters from going to the polls.
"This has racial dimensions to it,'' he said. "This is clear and simple voter suppression.''
House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, said Republican leaders plan to address the funding question by earmarking $150,000 to $200,000 for the equipment county registrars will need to produce photo IDs.
As for the voter suppression charge, Republicans countered that many more Georgians already have photo IDs than are registered to vote.
"We're really talking about a very narrow section of people we're trying to help here,'' said House Majority Whip Barry Fleming, R-Harlem.