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Barnes presses attack against photo ID law

ATLANTA - Georgia's Constitution places citizenship, residency and age requirements on the right to vote.

Convicted felons and people who have been judged mentally incompetent also are prohibited from casting ballots.

But the General Assembly may not impose any additional stipulations on voters, including making them show a photo ID at the polls, former Gov. Roy Barnes argued Friday in Fulton County Superior Court.

Barnes, a Democrat, is suing to overturn a photo ID law passed by the Republican-controlled legislature last year and modified this year to address concerns raised in a federal court ruling last fall.

In both cases, representatives of voting rights groups have charged that GOP leaders' stated reason for pushing the legislation - preventing fraud at the polls - masks a strategy of making it harder for people who tend to support Democrats to vote.

"It only has one effect: to disenfranchise those who can't afford an automobile and don't have a driver's license,'' Barnes said during a four-hour hearing before Judge T. Jackson Bedford.

The law requires Georgians to show one of six forms of government-issued photo identification to be permitted to vote in person. It replaces a 1997 law that allowed 17 forms of ID, including such documents as bank statements and utility bills that do not include photos.

The state has only been able to enforce the new law intermittently because of court decisions.

After a federal judge ruled against the requirement last October, preventing it from being enforced during November's municipal elections, the General Assembly passed a new law making photo IDs free and available at elections offices in all 159 counties.

But the revamped law, too, was rejected in federal and state court rulings handed down shortly before the July 18 primaries. As a result, it was not in effect during either the primaries or last month's runoffs.

However, those injunctions were temporary, prompting the plaintiffs in the state case to return to court Friday seeking to have the law ruled invalid for this fall's elections.

A similar hearing in U.S. District Court in Rome is set for next week.

Mark Cohen, a special assistant attorney general in the state case, said the General Assembly has a "legitimate concern'' to ensure that voter fraud is not occurring in Georgia.

He also argued that the photo ID law does not take away any Georgian's right to vote because people who don't have proper ID still can vote absentee, a process that only requires a signature.

"There is no right to vote in person,'' Cohen said. "The manner in which you vote is subject to restrictions.''

The state also doesn't require a photo ID when people register to vote.

Judge Bedford said he's bothered by a process that allows voters to simply sign a piece of paper when they register but forces them to have a government-issued photo ID in order to cast a ballot and, if they don't, makes them go back to an elections office to have an ID made.

"Why this extra step?'' he asked Cohen. "That might arguably be an imposition on the right to vote.''

While appearing to side with Barnes on that point, the judge also expressed concern that ruling against the new law at this point would disrupt the state's efforts to educate voters on the photo ID requirement.

That's what happened earlier this summer when another Fulton County judge handed down the temporary restraining order that prevented the law from being enforced during the primaries and runoffs.

Bedford said he would issue a ruling soon. Time is a factor because special elections are being held on Sept. 19 in about 20 counties and nine cities.