Harsh ID laws disenfranchise good Americans

September 19, 2005|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA -- If you live in America's fortunate half - the half whose household earnings are above the median of $44,000 or so a year - you probably own a house, one or two cars and have health insurance. So it's hard to imagine that some Americans are too poor to have an automobile. And it's simply inconceivable that there are people so disconnected from the mainstream that they have no driver's license or similar ID to allow access to commercial airline flights, checking accounts or voting booths.

Earlier this year, when the GOP-dominated Georgia General Assembly passed a harsh law requiring all voters to have state-issued identification cards, many of its members dismissed criticism that they were unfairly restricting the franchise. They were only seeking to prevent fraud, they said. Besides, what reliable voter doesn't have a driver's license?

A few Atlanta Journal-Constitution letter writers expressed that sentiment, too.

"How does a person get along these days without a picture ID of some sort to cash checks, turn on utilities, drive a car or enroll their children in school?" said one. "I find it hard to believe that such a large number of people don't have any ID to take to the polls."

Said another: "I believe that if a person doesn't have the gumption to get a photo ID, he or she, Republican or Democrat, shouldn't be voting anyway."

Don't touch that ballot, you spineless, ID-less losers!

Perhaps that reader has changed his mind after reading or watching wrenching accounts of the devastation by Hurricane Katrina, which so grievously punished the poor - families so destitute they couldn't buy a bus ticket to get out of town. They certainly didn't have cars, so they had no need for driver's licenses. But they are Americans, too, and they have every right to cast ballots for the candidates of their choice.

When Louisiana adopted a new voter ID requirement in 1997, it acknowledged the possibility of disenfranchising a large number of voters with a law drawn too rigidly, so it installed a fail-safe. Voters without photo IDs were allowed to sign an affidavit swearing that they weren't lying when they declared themselves to be Mattie Smith or John Jones. That way, their votes can still be counted. Those ballots may be contested, however, by any candidate demanding a recount in a close race.

Georgia, however, dumped its fail-safe mechanism. The old law allowed voters without IDs to sign affidavits attesting to their identities, but that didn't satisfy callous lawmakers determined to restrict the franchise. Its new voter ID law, the most restrictive in the nation, will undoubtedly block from the ballots thousands of poor and elderly Georgians.

And in its haste, the legislature didn't make it easy for those citizens to get state-sponsored IDs. Only 56 motor vehicle safety licensing branches serve Georgia's 159 counties.

So lots of people in Georgia will simply be locked out of the voting booth. Many of them live in the same small towns in which they were born, and longtime residents (including poll watchers) know who they are. They can walk into a grocery store and cash a Social Security check because they've been using the same grocer for decades. They can depend on a neighbor or church member to take them to their doctor's appointments. They attend a church where they are highly regarded.

In this country, they used to be considered good Americans. Not anymore, not with moves in several states to restrict the franchise to those comfortably in the mainstream. The poor but proud - Native Americans without driver's licenses, black city dwellers without cars, the rural elderly who never learned to drive - are apparently not American enough.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She can be reached by e-mail: cynthia@ajc.com.

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