After twice sponsoring laws requiring picture IDs in order to vote only to have them ruled unconstitutional by courts, a Georgia lawmaker with moderate Baptist ties now wants to amend the state’s constitution to stop judges from thwarting the will of the state Legislature.
State Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, is a member of Highland Hills Baptist Church in Macon and president and CEO of Smyth & Helwys, a privately owned business that is publisher of choice for books and study materials for the majority of churches aligned with the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Serving in his first term in elected office, Staton is sponsor of a controversial measure that would require voters showing up at the polls to provide one of six government-issued photo IDs in order to cast a ballot.
Staton and supporters, including Gov. Sonny Perdue, say the intent is to cut down on voter fraud. Opponents, which include civil- and voting-rights organizations, say the real agenda is to disenfranchise poor and African-American voters who are more likely not to have a driver’s license and cannot afford to get one.
Critics say it is just one of number of initiatives backed by Republicans across the country to suppress voting by people of color, who typically favor Democrats.
Last year a federal judge struck down Staton’s law, saying it amounted to an unconstitutional poll tax. The Legislature tweaked the bill in a second version this session, making IDs available without cost, but two courts blocked it from being implemented, finding it still an undue burden on a constitutional right to vote.
On Monday Staton proposed putting the question on the ballot, allowing the voters to decide whether to amend the state constitution to require voter IDs.
“Under the current law, people can walk into a voter precinct and present themselves as anyone they want to, provided they have an electric bill, phone bill or Social Security card,” Staton said in a column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Identification fraud is rampant in our country. What makes us think it isn’t going to happen at the ballot box?”
According to media reports, Staton said the amendment–if passed by two-thirds of the state Senate and House and then Georgia voters–would “enshrine” the photo ID requirement in the state Constitution and stop judges from “fancifully coming up with some opinion on what we cannot do.”
He cited “frequent identity theft and even evidence of illegal aliens being registered to vote.”
Cynthia Tucker, the paper’s editorial page editor and syndicated columnist appearing in 50 newspapers, called that claim “nonsense.”
“If there is evidence of illegal immigrants being registered to vote in Georgia, he should turn that over to authorities immediately so they can prosecute,” Tucker said. “Where’s the evidence?”
“It’s hard enough to get American citizens to vote, much less workers who crossed the border for better wages,” she said.
The governor’s office weighed in on the issue, even though the constitutional amendment would not require his signature.
“Gov. Perdue believes that voting is a sacred right and deserves the highest level of integrity and prevention of fraud,” Perdue spokeswoman Heather Hedrick told the Atlanta newspaper. “Requiring a photo ID to vote is a simple protection of this fundamental right.”
Tucker said she doubts Perdue believes “his own demagoguery,” but took the governor at his word by offering some advice she said would quiet critics.
“First, Perdue ought to spend the next four years ensuring that every adult in Georgia has a state-sponsored ID,” she wrote.
As many as 600,000 Georgians are estimated to lack a driver’s license or other form of ID approved by the state. Many are poor. Most are black and many are elderly. The Department of Driver Services, responsible for giving out IDs, has branch offices in fewer than half of Georgia’s counties.
“That makes it difficult for voters who lack transportation, as many voters do, to get to those sites,” she said. “Perdue should get serious about developing a comprehensive program to dispatch specially equipped mobile units all over the state to dispense IDs. If he does that, he will leave office having accomplished something significant for the people of the state.”
“Second, Republicans need to pass stringent requirements for absentee ballots,” she continued. “Most of the voter fraud of the last several decades has been associated with absentee ballots; yet the GOP-dominated Legislature chose to continue very loose requirements for absentee voting. (By contrast, there have been virtually no cases of fake voters successfully casting a ballot at the polls.)”
Tucker said Republicans aren’t as worried about absentee ballots because they are more likely to be used by voters inclined to vote for their party.
“If Perdue is interested in rising above rank partisanship, he’ll insist on voting reforms that don’t penalize any particular group of voters,” Tucker wrote. “If, instead, he wants to play political games with one of the most basic rights in America, he must share responsibility for perpetuating an ugly history of voter suppression.”
Tucker, a member of the United Church of Christ, has spoken at conferences sponsored by the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.