The headline on an Oct. 28 article incorrectly said that a Georgia law on voter identification was overturned. A federal appeals court upheld an injunction barring the state from enforcing the law, which requires many voters without government-issued identification such as a driver's license or passport to get a new digital ID card. A secondary headline said the state can no longer charge for access to the Nov. 8 election. The state never levied a charge for voting; it did charge $20 for five years to get the new digital ID. (Published 10/29/2005)
In a case that some have called a showdown over voting rights, a U.S. appeals court yesterday upheld an injunction barring the state of Georgia from enforcing a law requiring citizens to get government-issued photo identification in order to vote.
The ruling allows thousands of Georgians who do not have government-issued identification, such as driver's licenses and passports, to vote in the Nov. 8 municipal elections without obtaining a special digital identification card, which costs $20 for five years. In prior elections, Georgians could use any one of 17 types of identification that show the person's name and address, including a driver's license, utility bill, bank statement or a paycheck, to gain access to a voting booth.
Last week, when issuing the injunction, U.S. District Judge Harold L. Murphy likened the law to a Jim Crow-era poll tax that required residents, most of them black, to pay back taxes before voting. He said the law appeared to violate the Constitution for that reason. In the 2004 election, about 150,000 Georgians voted without producing government-issued identification.
"Obviously, we're very pleased with the decision," said Daniel Levitas of the American Civil Liberties Union, which joined the NAACP and other groups in a federal lawsuit against the Georgia law. "It's especially timely to see the federal courts step in to protect the precious rights of voters. This decision confirms our contention that the Georgia ID law poses a constitutional hurdle to the right to vote."
State officials say they will challenge the decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that was handed down by Judges Frank M. Hull, Stanley F. Birch Jr. and Joel F. Dubina. Birch and Dubina were appointed by President George H. W. Bush, and Hull was named to the appellate court by President Bill Clinton. The case is being watched nationally as Republicans and Democrats in many states battle over who will be allowed on the voter rolls.
The Georgia ID law has been controversial from the day it was submitted in March. Conservative lawmakers said it was needed to limit elections fraud. Liberal lawmakers said that argument was a smokescreen masking another intent: to maintain Republican power in the state by diluting the minority vote, which typically goes to Democrats.
Because Georgia falls under the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department had to approve the change in state law. It did so in August, prompting charges from outside and inside the department that it was backing away from strong enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.
Under the Georgia law, residents would need to produce original birth certificates and other documents to get the new digital identification card. The cards could only be obtained at Department of Motor Vehicles offices.
But critics say that many potential voters do not have the required documents and that some could not afford the $20 processing fee for identification.
State officials promised to provide free identification to anyone who swore under oath that they were indigent. But the law provided no definition of what constituted indigence in the state of Georgia, opening the possibility for possible perjury charges, activists said.
Liberal critics compiled statistics showing that far more white residents owned cars than African Americans. The law, they argued, gave an unfair advantage to white people while placing a burden on those who are black.
On top of that, the state recently reorganized the Department of Motor Vehicles, paring down the number of offices. After the reorganization, there were no DMV offices in Atlanta, a city with a wide black majority. The closest station is at least nine miles away. Fewer than 60 of the state's 159 counties have DMV offices.
State officials countered that they were providing a single vehicle, known as the GLOW bus, to traverse the state, providing applications and licenses to those with the proper documents. Critics expressed disbelief that one bus could accommodate the needs of so many potential voters.
Black lawmakers railed against the law. At times, they openly wept during the debates. Nevertheless, it passed both the House and Senate in near-lightning speed. The governor signed it in April.
"We did it because we thought it was the . . . thing to do to clean up Georgia election law," said Sen. William Stephens, a Republican from Cherokee County. He cited a report in the Atlanta Journal Constitution newspaper saying that more than 5,000 dead people voted in the eight elections before 2000.
Stephens said another Journal Constitution report stated that a poll revealed 80 percent of Georgians supported the voter ID law.
But Secretary of State Cathy Cox, a Democrat who oversees the election process, said there has not been a proven case of voter fraud in the state in nearly a decade.
As for the poll, Rep. Tyrone Brooks, president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, said respondents, especially those who are black, were not informed of the law's impact.
"You talk to African Americans, and they will tell you that this is a hardship," Brooks said.