Civil rights groups are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to block implementation of a Georgia law supported by a freshman state senator and president of a company that publishes religious literature for moderate Baptists, claiming it violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Cecil Staton, president Smyth & Helwys Publishers in Macon, Ga., and publisher of Stroud & Hall, which recently released its second best-seller by former U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, sponsored a bill in the Georgia State Senate requiring voters to have a photo ID and reducing the various forms of identification allowed from 17 to six.
Two dozen civil rights, religious and labor groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote the Justice Department saying the version of law that passed the Legislature will have a negative “racial impact” on minority voters.
Opponents say it discriminates against blacks–who are less likely than whites to have a driver’s license—as well as the poor, elderly and rural residents, who must travel farther to find a department of motor vehicle location to obtain a photo ID.
Staton introduced a companion bill in the Senate to HB 244, which was approved by the Legislature March 31, signed by Gov. Sonny Perdue April 22 and went into effect July 1.
Erick Erickson, a Republican blogger who managed Staton’s campaign, said he helped draft Staton’s bill in an effort fight voter fraud.
“In Georgia, New York, Ohio, and many more states, voters may show a driver’s license, social security card, pay check, utility bill, bank statement, birth certificate or a host of other forms of identification,” Erickson wrote in an editorial. “The opportunity for fraud makes one wonder why fraud at polling locations does not happen more often or makes one wonder if it does.”
In a press release on his Web site, Staton called it a “common sense” bill.
“Our right to vote is sacred,” he said. “Our forefathers laid down their lives so that we could go into the voting booth and cast a ballot for the candidate of our choice.”
“I don’t think it is too much to ask in this day of identity fraud to ask the people of Georgia to show a photo form of identification—not just an electric bill that could have been stolen from any mailbox.”
Erickson commented that requiring voters to provide a photo ID should be a “no-brainer,” but instead: “Varying interest groups have stood in the way with shouts of racism and claims of voter suppression. As a result, few states have had the backbone to require photographic identification.”
Opponents called the law unnecessary and compared it to the poll tax, which was used to keep poor, black people from voting before it was abolished 60 years ago.
Black legislators staged a walkout when the bill passed the Senate along party lines March 11.
A Senate minority report complained that the largest cases of voter fraud involve absentee balloting and voter registration, yet the bill does nothing to address those problems.
“Instead this bill achieves something I thought was impossible when I entered this esteemed chamber,” wrote Sen. Emanuel Jones, a Democrat and member of Shiloh Baptist Church in McDonough, Ga. “It turns back the clock in Georgia and begins a new era of Jim Crow in the 21st century.”
Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox, a United Methodist and graduate of Mercer University Law School, opposed the bill and wrote a letter in April urging Perdue to veto the legislation.
“I cannot recall one documented case of voter fraud during my tenure as Secretary of State or Assistant Secretary of State that specifically related to the impersonation of a registered voter at voting polls,” said Cox, who is in a second term after becoming Georgia’s first woman Secretary of State in 1998.
Cox said the bill also created a burden on poor residents, who have no need to drive or travel and cannot afford an $8 fee for an ID card. It is unconstitutional, she said, because it impedes some legal residents in exercising their right to vote.
The civil rights groups writing the Justice Department said the law also violates Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which says states with a history of racial discrimination must receive pre-clearance before adopting any change to voting. Under the act, they claim, Georgia has the burden of proving the proposed change “does not deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, color or membership in a language minority group.”
The New York Times rebuked the law in an editorial Wednesday, calling it “undemocratic” and “disturbing” and saying it seems “primarily focused on putting up obstacles for black and poor voters.”
The Times said Georgia’s new identification requirement is “part of a nationwide drive to erect barriers at the polls.”
“There are many steps states can take to reduce election fraud,” the editorial concluded. “But laws that condition voting on having a particular piece of identification that many eligible voters do not possess have no place in a democracy.”
A native of Greenville, S.C., Staton is a graduate of Furman University and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary with a Ph.D. from Oxford University in England. He is a member of Highland Hills Baptist Church in Macon, Ga.
Staton formed Smyth & Helwys in 1990 as an alternative press committed to free inquiry and biblical scholarship, at a time when the Southern Baptist Convention publisher was shutting out authors who did not toe the line regarding biblical inerrancy. At the request of moderate leaders, Staton’s company started producing Sunday school materials in 1991.
Based in Macon, Smyth & Helwys today lists about 300 titles in its online catalogue, written by a host of moderate Baptist authors. Their Web site claims more than 3,000 churches use Smyth & Helwys resources, which include Sunday school, vacation Bible school and digital Bible study materials.
Staton relinquished the title of publisher when he ran unsuccessfully for Congress is 2002, but continues as president and CEO.
Staton started a separate company, Stroud & Hall, in 2003 with an inaugural book by Zell Miller, a former U.S. Senator and Georgia governor who gave a keynote speech at the Republican National Convention in 2004, titled A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat. Miller’s latest book, Deficit of Decency, debuted at No. 9 in the New York Times Bestseller List, according to a news release in May.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.