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Voting issues dominate secretary of state's race

ATLANTA - Georgia's secretary of state has responsibilities as broad as any statewide elected official below the rank of governor and broader than most.

But this year's race finds Democrat Gail Buckner and Republican Karen Handel spending most of their time on high-profile issues affecting just one of the office's duties: overseeing the Elections Division.

The future of electronic voting and Georgia's controversial voter ID law are to a large extent in the hands of the General Assembly and the courts.

However, the next secretary of state will be in a position either to aggressively pursue providing a paper backup to electronic ballots and requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls, or to hold off on major changes at the state level to give Congress time to act.

Buckner, 55, Handel, 44, and Libertarian Party candidate Kevin Madsen, 34, are vying to succeed Cathy Cox, who vacated the post in an unsuccessful campaign for governor.

Cox helped lead Democratic opposition to the voter ID law during the last two legislative sessions. Democrats argue that forcing Georgians to show a government-issued photo ID to vote would effectively disenfranchise thousands who don't have a driver's license or passport, primarily poor, black and elderly voters who tend to support Democratic candidates.

The law won't be enforced during next month's elections because of state and federal court rulings declaring the requirement an unconstitutional infringement on the right to vote.

Bad process

Buckner, a member of the Georgia House of Representatives for the last 16 years, voted against different versions of the bill in 2005 and again this year.

"I'm not opposed to a picture ID being used, but it has to be done right,'' she said.

Buckner said she opposed last year's bill because it would have required voters to pay for a state-issued photo ID. This year, she said, majority Republicans rammed the bill through without enough debate and tried to put it in place too soon before important elections.

"They clearly were not going to execute this in a fair and reasonable manner,'' she said.

But Handel, a former business executive and chairman of the Fulton County Commission, said Georgia should move forward with voter ID as part of "common-sense'' comprehensive election reform.

To combat fraud, the major Republican argument in favor of voter ID, Handel said she would go further and push to require photo IDs for absentee and early voting as well as at the polls.

"You have to have the same requirements to vote absentee as to vote advance or to vote on Election Day,'' she said.

While Congress has been considering phasing in a federal photo ID requirement starting in 2008, Handel said Georgia shouldn't wait.

If state courts fail to approve photo ID, she said she would support asking voters to amend Georgia's Constitution to install the mandate.

"Let the people decide, not the judiciary,'' she said.

Jumping the gun

On the other hand, Handel said the state should have taken more of a wait-and-see stance on electronic voting.

She said Cox moved too quickly to install electronic voting machines across Georgia following the 2000 presidential voting controversy in Florida.

In 2002, Georgia became the first to implement electronic voting statewide. Since then, numerous studies have criticized the machines as subject to mischief or outright fraud from hackers.

"Particularly with technology, being the first isn't necessarily being the best,'' Handel said.

Both Handel and Buckner said they support installing a paper backup to Georgia's electronic ballots.

Buckner said the General Assembly should adopt standards for electronic voting machines in Georgia and not wait for Congress to approve federal standards.

"The federal government has led us into the age of electronic voting,'' she said. "But they haven't done the due diligence they should have done.''

Several attempts to reach Madsen for this article were unsuccessful. Buckner and Handel also are touting election-reform initiatives outside the issues of voter ID and electronic voting.

A cornerstone of Buckner's campaign is her call for public financing of statewide and legislative campaigns. She said public financing laws already are in place in Maine and Arizona, a state where campaign contributions now are limited to $5 per donor.

Buckner's proposal would create a state commission to identify a "clean'' way to fund political races.

"What we need to do is begin the discussion on what will work in the state of Georgia,'' she said. "Five dollars might be too extreme, but some limitations on what takes place now would be an improvement.''

For her part, Handel said she would push to centralize the voter registration process at the state level.

She said moving that responsibility into one central location rather than relying on 159 county elections offices would reduce the chances not only for fraud but human error.

"If we have a centralized system, we can keep a list more accurately and efficiently,'' Handel said.

The two candidates each have proposals to beef up the secretary of state's ability to investigate fraud.

Buckner said she wants to create state boards to investigate complaints of identity or investment fraud.

Handel said she would appoint an inspector general in the agency's Professional Licensing Division to speed up the handling of consumer

complaints.