Supreme Court hears voter ID case

ATLANTA - Former Gov. Roy Barnes on Monday tied a state law requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls to Georgia's "checkered'' past of erecting barriers to keep black people from voting.

"Georgia has a long history ... of being a state where we only want a certain number of people, a certain color of people, to vote,'' Barnes, the lawyer for a woman who is challenging the law, told the state Supreme Court during oral arguments in the case.

"We have a long history of marching to universal suffrage, and the question is whether this court will take the first step backwards.''

The high court was hearing an appeal filed by the state after a Superior Court judge ruled last September that the law violates Georgia's Constitution.

The law has had a bumpy ride since the Republican-controlled General Assembly first enacted it two years ago.

It was thrown out first by a federal judge, who ruled that the state had made getting photo IDs too burdensome for voters who don't already have driver's licenses.

Responding to that 2005 decision, the legislature changed the law last year, making photo IDs free and available at elections offices in all 159 counties.

But that failed to placate Fulton County Superior Court Judge T. Jackson Bedford Jr. He ruled last fall that under the state Constitution, the General Assembly can only deny the right to vote to people who don't meet the age, residency or citizenship requirements, who are convicted felons or who have been judged mentally incompetent.

During Monday's hearing, Special Assistant Attorney General Mark Cohen argued that state law does give lawmakers the right to set the "time, place and manner'' of elections.

"The legislature is permitted wide latitude to determine the qualifications of electors when they come to vote,'' he said.

But Cohen went beyond the legal aspects of the state's challenge to the lower-court ruling to argue that the photo ID also was a reasonable step by the General Assembly to prevent voter fraud.

Under current law, voters only have to show one of 17 forms of identification at the polls to be allowed to vote. Lacking any of those, voters simply can swear that they are who they say they are.

"There's no ability to go beyond that at the polling place,'' Cohen said. "The only way to (detect voter fraud) is ... to catch them at it. ... That's a rationale for a voter ID law.''

Cohen also denied that the law was intended to disenfranchise voters. He said any registered voter who doesn't have a photo ID can vote by absentee ballot, vote a provisional ballot on Election Day and return within 48 hours with proof of identification, or obtain a free state-issued ID.

Barnes, a Democrat, had both legal and moral arguments against the GOP-backed photo ID law.

First, he told the justices that only a photo ID requirement - not limiting elections to certain times of the day or locations - restricts a person's right to vote. Thus, he said, it is a "qualification'' to vote and, thus, not in the legislature's power to regulate.

Then, Barnes gave the court a history lesson, comparing the photo ID law to onerous voting requirements the General Assembly set early in the last century, including the poll tax and a literacy test.

Barnes also argued that targeting voter fraud at the polls is unnecessary when the vast majority of fraud that has been reported in Georgia has been connected to absentee voting.

"Is it reasonable to go through this ... when there's no proof it's a necessity?'' he asked.

After the arguments concluded, Barnes defended his emotional presentation to the justices.

"Anytime you infringe on a basic right ... I'm upset,'' he told reporters outside the Supreme Court chambers.

Republican Secretary of State Karen Handel readily conceded that the former governor's arguments were the more dramatic.

"We need to deal with the facts,'' she said. "Our attorney presented a strong case based on facts.''

The federal case also is still pending but has been put on hold until the state court issues its ruling, which could take several months.