Voter ID law violates Georgia Constitution, judge says

July 08, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ATLANTA -- For the second time, a judge has blocked a Republican-sponsored effort to require Georgia voters to present government-issued photo identification cards before they can cast a ballot.

Judge Melvin K. Westmoreland of Fulton County Superior Court said the requirement violates the state Constitution by placing an undue burden on the fundamental right to vote. Although the legislature passed the requirement, he said, such a change would require citizens to approve an amendment to the state constitution, which now says only that voters must be 18 years old, mentally competent and state residents.

The judge's temporary restraining order was in response to a legal challenge against the requirement filed by former Gov. Roy E. Barnes, a Democrat. Barnes argued that the requirement would make it harder for minorities, the elderly and the poor to vote.

State officials immediately vowed to appeal the ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court. Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican who signed the law this year, said it was needed to ensure the integrity of the ballot box.

"The sad fact is that dead people have cast votes in Georgia and - before this law is implemented - there was no way to tell how many deceased voters, felons or even illegal aliens may have been casting ballots in Georgia elections," Perdue said in a statement.

The law also faces a challenge in federal court, where a consortium of voters rights groups have sued on the grounds that the law violates the U.S. Constitution.

Since it was passed in March 2005, the Voter ID law has gone back and forth between the legislature and the courts, with lawmakers struggling to find a way to implement the bill without violating federal or state voter protections. The first version of the law required voters to have a driver's license or other government ID, or to buy a special state card.

That law was struck down in October by a federal judge, who said that the requirement that voters had to buy the card amounted to an unconstitutional poll tax.

The law was later rewritten by the Republican-led legislature to make the ID cards free. But the new version continued to draw strong criticism. Civil rights groups say those who lack a photo identification are more likely to be black or Hispanic, poor or elderly - groups that traditionally cast their ballots for Democratic candidates. They see the law as a barely disguised attempt to aid Republican candidates.

"The law continues to impose an unnecessary burden on voters and does nothing to protect against fraud in voting," said Neil Bradley, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project in Atlanta. "No amount of tinkering can cure the many flaws in this unconstitutional statute."

Secretary of State Cathy Cox, a Democrat who oversees Georgia's elections and who is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, said there has not been a proven case of voter fraud in the state in nearly a decade. Her office has estimated that some 676,000 otherwise eligible voters lack a driver's license or state-issued photo ID.

Westmoreland agreed with critics who said the legislature had pushed past constitutional protections in passing the law.

"The general assembly has wide latitude to legislate unless it undertakes to act where the Georgia Constitution enumerates a clear and unmistakable right to Georgia's citizens," Westmoreland wrote. "It is a given that any illegal restriction of the fundamental right to vote is prohibited."

Purdue said the state's appeal would be based on ballot security.

"Democracy only works because people have trust in the integrity of the ballot box," he said. "I respectfully disagree with Judge Westmoreland and believe that Georgia's law is not only constitutional, but a common sense, prudent protection of the election process."

The judge's restraining order means the law will not be in effect for the state's primaries on July 18. He referred the matter back to state court for a civil trial.

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