Ruling won't end voter ID fight

It took two years, but Georgia Republicans finally have convinced a federal judge that requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls isn't going to interfere with the right to vote.

U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy of Rome declared legislation the GOP-controlled General Assembly passed in 2005 unconstitutional because it would have let the state charge for IDs issued to voters who don't have a driver's license.

He compared the fee to a poll tax, a vestige of an era when Southern states placed a monetary burden on voting to keep poor blacks away from the polls.

Taking the cue, Republican leaders pushed a second bill through the legislature last year waiving the fee and making photo IDs available at all 159 county elections offices.

That was enough for Murphy, who upheld the 2006 law earlier this month, allowing the state to start enforcing the new requirement during Tuesday's special elections in 23 counties.

But it's window dressing to the civil rights organizations that have opposed photo ID mandates in Georgia and other states.

They point to research that shows black voters are far less likely to have a photo ID than their white counterparts, five times less likely according to a study conducted in Louisiana several years ago.

"There still will be people come Election Day who won't have a picture ID ... (and) it's not the white guys who won't have them," said David Bositis, senior research associate with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank that focuses on issues of concern to minorities.

Take that argument a step further and you see why Georgia Democrats fought against the photo ID bills.

Since most black voters tend to support Democratic candidates, dampening black turnout through a photo ID requirement helps Republicans.

"If you have a close election you think might be settled by 1 or 2 percentage points, for Republicans, keeping black voters from voting is the smart way to possibly win those elections," Bositis said.

Bositis and others say that line of reasoning is behind an effort by Republicans across the country to enact photo ID laws for in-person voting.

Georgia is on the leading edge of the movement. Only four other states - Arizona, Florida, Indiana and South Dakota - require a photo ID at the polls.

A fifth, Michigan, will begin enforcing a photo ID mandate in November.

The Missouri legislature also passed a photo ID law, but it has been overturned by that state's Supreme Court.

All of the photo ID states have a backup in place for voters who show up at the polls without one.

In Georgia and two other states, the law allows voters lacking a photo ID to cast a "provisional" ballot, which is counted if they appear at an elections office within a certain period (48 hours in Georgia) with a valid ID.

The other three states have a less restrictive backup that lets voters without a photo ID cast ballots, which are then counted, if they fill out an affidavit affirming their identity.

Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, who sponsored the photo ID legislation in Georgia, said those provisions demonstrate that the law's intent is to prevent voter fraud, not keep eligible voters from exercising their rights.

In fact, he and other Republicans say Murphy's ruling proves their point. The judge concluded that the groups bringing the lawsuit couldn't find any voters to serve as plaintiffs who could show they had been harmed by the photo ID requirement.

"The case fell apart because the individuals put forth ... ended up not being good examples," Staton said.

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said Republicans could end the conspiracy theories about their motives simply by cracking down on absentee voters as they have on those who vote in person.

Instead, absentee voting has been made easier than ever with a law that lets people vote by mail without giving a reason, such as being out of town on Election Day.

Studies have shown that Republicans vote absentee at higher rates than Democrats.

"If you require some kind of positive identification for absentee voting, it helps you justify that you really are concerned about fraud," Bullock said.

Staton said Georgia lawmakers already are addressing absentee voting, pointing to two bills the General Assembly passed this year upgrading absentee voter fraud to a felony and tightening up the procedures for handling mail-in ballots.

Beyond that, he said, there's not much the state can do.

"We can't ask somebody to mail in their driver's license," he said. "The signature is the vehicle for verifying absentee ballot fraud."

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