ATLANTA - For two years, Republicans in Georgia have been pushing to require that voters show a photo ID at their polling place to cast a ballot. And for two years, the courts have been ruling against them.
That changed this week, when the federal judge who first struck down the law ruled that a revised version passes constitutional muster. While an appeal is still likely, Thursday's ruling is nonetheless a significant political win for Georgia's GOP. Voter ID became a signature issue for the party soon after it gained control of both chambers of the state Legislature.
The issue became so fiercely partisan and racially charged that Democrats stormed off the floor during a debate in 2005. Some Georgia Democrats who had taken part in the civil rights movement were deeply offended by what they saw as a move to keep poor and minority voters from the ballot box, a right they had struggled to secure.
That Democrats now appear to have lost the battle is evidence of their diminishing power in Georgia, political experts said.
'Democrats are in a real bind in this state,' William Boone, a political science professor at Clark Atlanta University. 'When they can't deliver on an issue so important to their African-American base, that does not help.'
Boone said he thought the issue would help Republicans, especially conservatives who worry about illegal immigration.
Gov. Sonny Perdue raised the specter of illegal immigrants at the ballot box at a news conference soon after the ruling came down.
'I am a firm believer that American democracy works best when the most people possible participate in that process,' Perdue said. 'It is fundamental, however, that these be American citizens.'
Indeed, both parties have made ample use of scare rhetoric in the battle over the photo ID.
Republican supporters have said the law is needed to combat voter fraud but have provided no evidence that in-person voter fraud exists.
Democrats, meanwhile, have warned that thousands of voters could be disenfranchised, but have not found a single one to act as a plaintiff in their lawsuit.
U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy cited the failure of opponents to find someone actually harmed by the law as one reason he dismissed the legal challenge on Thursday. Murphy had labeled the original version of the voter ID law a 'poll tax.' The law he signed off on Thursday made photos IDs free to anyone who needs them.
State Sen. Cecil Staton, who sponsored the law, said that in this age of identity theft it only makes sense that reliable photo ID would be required to vote.
'I think it comes down, ultimately, to common sense,' the Macon Republican said.
'Most Americans and most Georgians are asked to identify themselves for mundane, common things in their life, to cash a check or to buy alcohol or cigarettes. We live in a world where ID is incredibly important.'
Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the federal case said they are weighing whether to appeal to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. They could seek an emergency injunction to block the law from taking effect.
For now, the state will continue with an education effort aimed at voters in 22 counties where there will be special elections Sept. 18. That will be a warmup for the state's Feb. 5 presidential primary.