ATLANTA - Georgia's new photo ID law turns back the clock on voting rights after two centuries of steady progress, former Gov. Roy Barnes charged in a Fulton County courtroom Thursday.
But a legal attempt to prevent the state from enforcing the law during this month's primaries could be in trouble because of questions surrounding the qualifications of the plaintiffs.
Barnes, a Democrat, is seeking a temporary restraining order on behalf of two clients who say they would be affected by legislation Republicans pushed through the General Assembly requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls.
The case is one of two pending challenges to the new law. A hearing on a lawsuit in federal court is set for next Wednesday in Rome.
During Thursday's hearing before Fulton Superior Court Judge Melvin Westmoreland, lawyers representing the state defended the photo ID requirement as a way to prevent voter fraud.
But Jennifer Jordan, Barnes' co-counsel, argued that the law actually makes it easier for Georgians to vote by absentee ballot - a method that has generated many documented instances of fraud - while clamping down only on voting in person. She said Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who is now seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, hasn't documented a single instance of in-person voter fraud in nearly two terms in office.
Barnes, who lost his re-election bid to Republican Sonny Perdue in 2002, accused GOP leaders of concocting the photo ID requirement to reduce turnout among poor, black and elderly voters, who tend to support Democratic candidates.
"I have lived by the sword of politics and, yes, I have died by the sword of politics,'' Barnes told the judge. "But I suggest to you there are some things we cannot and should not allow in politics.
"When you take a group of people and try to push down their ability to vote to win an election, it's wrong.''
But Mark Cohen, a special assistant attorney general, said the new law does not deny any Georgian the right to vote.
He said any registered voter who does not have one of the six forms of photo ID required at the polls can vote absentee with no photo ID requirement.
Cohen said the state has trained registrars and poll workers across Georgia in how to enforce the law, and equipment needed to produce photo IDs has been sent to elections offices in every county.
He said public service announcements are being aired on radio and TV stations to make voters aware that they will need photo IDs to vote on July 18 and where to get them.
Even with that, Cohen said only 83 photo IDs have been issued statewide since the State Election Board gave the go-ahead last week.
"There doesn't seem to be an overwhelming demand for them,'' he said.
Ann Lewis, another lawyer representing the state, questioned the veracity of a list Cox released recently of some 675,000 registered voters in Georgia who don't have a driver's license, the most common form of ID expected to be used to comply with the new law.
Lewis presented evidence Thursday that of the two plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed by Barnes, one has a driver's license and the other has an old but valid college ID from a public university in Florida.
"Neither of these people lacks identification to vote under this new law,'' Lewis said. "You'd think at least one person from this list could be identified for this case.''
The state's lawyers asked Westmoreland to dismiss the lawsuit because the plaintiffs lacked legal standing to file it.
The judge said he would have a ruling today.