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Criticism of Voting Law Was Overruled

The Voting Rights Act puts the legal burden on Georgia to show that proposed election-related changes would not be retrogressive. According to the Aug. 25 memo from the Justice review team, Georgia lawmakers and state officials made little effort to research the possible racial impact of the proposed program.

The 51-page memo recommended several steps that Georgia could take to make the ID program fairer to minority voters, such as continuing to allow the use of non-photo identification, such as birth certificates and Social Security cards, that have not been shown to pose security problems.

Those in favor of issuing an objection were Robert Berman, deputy chief of the voting rights section; Amy Zubrensky, a trial lawyer; Heather Moss, a civil rights analyst; and Toby Moore, a geographer, according to the memo. A fifth member of the team, trial lawyer Joshua Rogers, recommended approval, but the memo does not include his reasoning.

Berman did not return a call made to his office.

A key area of disagreement between the staff and their supervisors appears to be the reliability of data provided by the Georgia Department of Driver Services and other state agencies.

The staff memo noted that the records were riddled with errors, including the unexpired licenses of dead people, and were "of a quality far below what we are accustomed to using in the Voting Section." And other sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau, showed that Georgia blacks were much less likely than whites to own vehicles and also less likely to have photo IDs, the memo said.

"While no single piece of data confirms that blacks will [be] disparately impacted compared to whites, the totality of the evidence points to that conclusion," the memo said. It added later: "The state has failed to meet its burden of demonstrating that the change is not retrogressive."

But Assistant Attorney General William E. Moschella cited the state's data in an Oct. 7 letter to a senator that argues the number of eligible voters without a photo ID is "extremely small."

"All individual data indicates that the state's African-American citizens are, if anything, slightly more likely than white citizens to possess one of the necessary forms of identification," Moschella wrote to Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) in defense of the department's decision.

State Sen. Bill Stephens, a Republican who helped win passage of the legislation, said the Justice Department's approval was vital because of the restrictions faced by Georgia under the Voting Rights Act.

"That is the most crucial part of any elections legislation we pass," said Stephens, who is a candidate for secretary of state. "We know we have to await the Justice Department's pre-clearance of virtually anything we do."

State Rep. Tyrone L. Brooks Sr., a Democrat and president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, said he was not surprised by the Justice Department's position in the case.

"Some of my colleagues told me early on that, because of politics in the Bush administration, no matter what the staff recommendation was, this would be approved by the attorney general," Brooks said. "It's disappointing that the staff recommendation was not accepted, because that has been the norm since 1965."

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