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Next year will be key test of voter ID law

So far, so good for Georgia's new law requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls.

"To the best of our knowledge, we have no complaints pending with regard to implementation of the voter ID law," Matt Carrothers, spokesman for Secretary of State Karen Handel, said last week, two weeks after municipal elections across Georgia, the first full-scale trial by fire of the new law.

The results were similar in September, when a handful of special elections scattered around the state marked the first enforcement of the photo ID requirement since it was upheld in state and federal courts.

The smooth elections didn't come as a surprise to the civil rights and voting rights advocates who fought against the law for two years.

They never expected widespread disenfranchisement of poor or elderly voters lacking driver's licenses or other acceptable forms of photo ID at such typically low turnout elections as were held this year.

Still, there's been a palpable shift in strategy for the law's opponents since the Georgia Supreme Court and a federal judge in Rome gave the green light to photo ID.

With the growing inevitability of the requirement, groups like the League of Women Voters of Georgia and the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials are putting more focus on making sure through their outreach efforts that as many voters as possible have a valid photo ID.

"In the real world we're living in after 9/11, I tell people, 'Make sure you have proper identification ... particularly passports and driver's licenses,' " said state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, GABEO's president.

Carrothers credited Handel's outreach campaigns before both the September elections and this month's voting for the ease with which the law has been put into place.

In August, the secretary of state launched a Web site and toll-free hotline to give voters information about the new requirement, including the six forms of photo ID that would be considered valid at the polls and how to get a free state-issued photo ID card.

The effort also included radio public-service announcements and mailings to about 74,000 voters identified as potentially not having a driver's license or other form of acceptable photo ID.

U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy cited the outreach campaign in his Sept. 6 ruling upholding the new law.

"The state's educational effort began sufficiently early to afford most voters who lack a photo ID a reasonable opportunity to obtain one," the judge wrote.

Handel took similar steps during the weeks leading up to this month's municipal elections. This time, however, because the voting was statewide, her office sent letters to more than 166,000 voters.

Carrothers said the secretary of state's office now is gearing up for the next phase of outreach aimed at Georgia's Feb. 5 presidential primaries.

He said virtually every registered voter will be touched this time through hundreds of radio and TV announcements.

Also, the agency will send educational materials on the new law to public libraries, houses of worship, chambers of commerce and civic organizations, he said.

The law's opponents say next year's elections - the presidential primaries, the summer congressional, legislative and county primaries, and the November general election - will offer the first real test of photo ID.

Brooks said he's worried that with much higher turnouts expected, the combined efforts of groups like GABEO and Handel's office still won't be enough.

"Some people we don't reach are going to walk up to the polls and be turned away," he said.

The law requires that voters lacking a valid photo ID be allowed to cast a "provisional" ballot.

But the law's critics say the 48 hours given provisional voters to present an acceptable ID to their county registrars in order to have their ballot counted are not enough.

Even while GABEO and other groups work to ensure that Georgia voters have valid photo IDs, they're still holding out hope for what could be the last gasp in the legal battles that have been waged around the country against similar laws.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal of Indiana's voter ID law early next year.

Like Georgia, Indiana has one of the most restrictive laws in the nation because it does not allow voters lacking a valid photo ID to swear out an affidavit affirming their identity and have their ballot counted automatically.

"I think the Supreme Court after the Indiana case is heard ... will bring some finality to it," Brooks said.

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.