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Court, election loom for ID law
GOP pushes voter education program ahead of critical court hearing

ATLANTA - First, Republicans running state government tried to sway a hesitant federal judge to uphold a requirement that voters show a photo ID at the polls by making them free and easy to get.

Now, GOP leaders are vowing to make sure voters who don't have a driver's license or one of the other five forms of photo ID the law requires realize they need to get one.

The state's new education campaign on the voter ID law, timed to coincide with special elections being held in 22 counties on Sept. 18, isn't being undertaken primarily with U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy in mind, GOP Secretary of State Karen Handel said last week.

But it shouldn't hurt the state's case, either, when Murphy resumes consideration of a federal lawsuit this week challenging the law as an unconstitutional violation of the Voting Rights Act.

"It's hard to speculate what a judge may or may not do," Handel said. "(But) when I sit in that courtroom, I'll be able to say in all good faith and conscience that we've made every effort to reach every voter in the 22 counties. ... We're trying to leave no stone uncovered."

Handel said she's been working on the education campaign since taking office in January.

At that time, both state and federal lawsuits were pending against the voter ID law, originally adopted by the General Assembly two years ago and tweaked by lawmakers last year after an unfavorable ruling from Murphy.

But in June, the Georgia Supreme Court threw out a state challenge to the law. The state justices ruled unanimously that the plaintiff wasn't legally qualified to take her case to court because she had a form of photo ID that was acceptable under the law and, thus, wasn't being harmed by the requirement.

Green light

At that point, Handel moved quickly to develop the voter education campaign.

Its components include:

n letters to about 74,000 Georgians who are registered to vote but don't have either a Georgia driver's license or state-issued photo ID card

n public service announcements, which began airing last week on radio stations in the 22 counties

n a toll-free information hotline (1-877-725-9797)

n an information Web site (GaPhotoID.com)

n mandatory training of elections officials and poll workers in the 22 counties

In some cases, elections officials in the affected counties are making preparations of their own.

Donna Morrison, director of the Newton County Board of Elections, said her office is running a public service announcement on local-access cable channels and plans to take out newspaper ads closer to the election.

"We don't want our voters to get caught off guard," she said. "I think we'll be prepared."

Handel said putting the new law into effect immediately is her job as Georgia's chief elections official.

"Once the state Supreme Court ruled, then the law became the law," she said. "Secretaries of state don't have the discretion to choose which laws to enforce."

But the law's opponents say Republican leaders consistently have shown themselves overanxious in moving to enforce the law.

"We wouldn't have had such a problem with it if they had said the 2010 election or some other time in the future," said Bill Bozarth, executive director of Common Cause Georgia. "Every time they've gone for it, they've said, 'We're going to do it right away.' "

When lawmakers passed an original version of the photo ID requirement during the 2005 session, they made it effective for the next election.

As a result, it was enforced during a smattering of special elections later that year.

However, Murphy had overturned the law by November of 2005, so it was not in effect for that year's general elections.

Poll tax

In his ruling, the judge sided with complaints that the $20 fee the original version of the law imposed for state-issued photo IDs amounted to an unconstitutional poll tax.

Murphy also sympathized with arguments that the state hadn't done enough to make photo IDs available.

The General Assembly responded last year by passing a new law that made the IDs free and available at elections offices in all 159 counties.

Those changes didn't satisfy the law's opponents, who have continued trying to convince the federal court to block the requirement.

An alliance of Democrats, good-government groups and voting rights activists argue the law is intended to reduce the number of ballots cast by poor, elderly and minority voters, which as a group are more likely to support Democratic candidates.

Republicans counter that their push for photo IDs has been to curb voter fraud.

Handel said another reason for moving forward expeditiously with the new law is that voter education campaigns don't work months ahead of an election.

Since most people don't tend to pay attention to politics until just before an election, she said it makes sense to concentrate voter education during those few weeks.

"You want to reach people in a time frame within which they will say, 'Aha! I need to take action,'" she said.

But Bozarth said that with so many people lacking driver's licenses, putting such a major change in voting requirements into effect so quickly is going to take away some Georgians' voting rights.

"With a short time frame, clearly some people are going to want to vote and not be able to," he said.

But Handel said she's comfortable with enforcing the photo ID requirement next month. She said the special elections, limited to just a few counties and with light turnouts likely, will help her office get an early start on the general elections in November.

SideBar: At a glance

On Sept. 18, state elections officials plan to begin enforcing Georgia's new law requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls. The following 22 counties are holding special elections on that date:

Baldwin

Bibb

Brantley

Carroll

Charlton

Chattooga

Dawson

Douglas

Echols

Fulton

Lamar

Lowndes

Marion

Meriwether

Monroe

Newton

Sumter

Tift

Treutlen

Walton

Whitfield

Wilkinson

To vote at the polls, Georgians will be required to produce one of the following six forms of photo ID:

'Georgia driver's license, even if expired

'Valid state or federal government-issued photo ID, including a free voter ID card issued by a county registrar or state driver's license office

'valid U.S. passport

'valid employee photo ID from any branch, department, agency or entity of the U.S. government, Georgia or any county, municipality, board, authority or other entity of this state

'Valid U.S. military photo ID

'Valid tribal photo ID

Source: Georgia Secretary of State's office