ATLANTA - The Republican-controlled State Election Board gave the final go ahead Thursday for enforcement of Georgia's controversial new photo ID law during next month's primaries.
In a series of 3-1 votes, with the board's only Democrat objecting, board members instructed local elections officials to begin producing the photo ID cards that voters will have to show at the polls on July 18 before being allowed to cast their ballots.
The board also agreed to spend about $55,000 on leaflets describing the new law, which will be handed to voters across the state that day, part of the voter education efforts required by the new law.
A legal obstacle to putting the photo ID law in place for the primaries went away this week when the U.S. Department of Justice "pre-cleared'' the legislation.
Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Georgia and eight other states with a history of discrimination in voting must submit changes in their election laws to the federal government for review.
Republican majorities in the General Assembly passed an earlier version of the photo ID legislation last year, purportedly to cut down on voter fraud.
But Democrats claimed that it was aimed at poor, black and elderly voters who are less likely to own driver's licenses and more likely to vote for Democratic candidates.
Civil rights advocates sued in federal court, and a judge overturned the law last fall.
That prompted lawmakers to pass a second bill this year that makes the IDs free and requires that they be available in all 159 Georgia counties.
With pre-clearance out of the way, the elections board voted to make 1.5 million copies of the informational leaflet available to county elections offices in the Atlanta region for distribution to each precinct.
Because of time constraints, blank paper will be sent to elections officials in other parts of the state, who will then make enough copies of the material for another 500,000 voters.
The leaflets will be handed to each voter after he or she casts a ballot in the Republican or Democratic primary.
"The goal is to make as good a good-faith effort as we can to get these voter-education pieces in the hands of as many voters as possible,'' said Randy Evans, who represents the state Republican Party on the board.
But David Worley, the Democratic Party's representative on the board, called the plan a waste of tax dollars. He said it would have made more sense to mail the material to Georgia voters who don't have a driver's license or other state-issued photo ID, the most common forms of identification that will be used to comply with the new law.
According to recent statistics from the secretary of state's office, approximately 675,000 registered voters don't have those forms of ID.
"What we're doing here today does absolutely nothing to solve that problem,'' Worley said. "What we are doing is giving people who have already voted on July 18 a piece of paper that says they need a photo ID.''
Despite the board's actions on Thursday, the law still faces legal hurdles. The same groups that sued in federal court last year have challenged the legislation against this year.
Also, a lawsuit filed in a state court by former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, is due to be heard next week.