The House sponsor of Georgia’s controversial voter ID bill has fired back at a newspaper report implying race was part of her rationale.
State Rep. Sue Burmeister, R-Augusta, sponsored the House version of a state law requiring voters at polling places to provide a photo ID. The General Assembly adopted the law this year. Gov. Sonny Perdue signed it into law April 22. The U.S. Justice Department granted “pre-clearance,” allowing it to move forward. But last month a federal judge blocked its implementation, saying it amounts to a poll tax and is ineffective in combating voter fraud.
On Thursday the Washington Post posted a leaked 51-page Justice Department memo on its Web site. In it lawyers recommended against pre-clearance, saying state officials failed to meet their burden to prove the law did not have the effect of “retrogressing” the voting rights of minorities.
The next day, according to the Post, senior Justice officials overruled the memo, saying the plan could proceed because it was not harmful to black voters.
Georgia is one of nine states with histories of discrimination in elections, mostly in the South, that are required by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to submit any voting change rule that might affect minority groups to the Justice Department for review. The department can either halt such laws with an objection or issue a pre-clearance allowing them to proceed.
On Friday the Post followed up with another story, in which Justice officials downplayed the memo, saying it was a draft document that contained old data and faulty analysis.
Also on Friday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on “inflammatory” remarks attributed to Burmeister in the memo saying blacks in her district vote only because they are paid.
“Rep. Burmeister said that if there are fewer black voters because of this bill, it will be only because there is less opportunity for fraud,” reads an excerpt from the memo. “She said that when black voters in her black precincts are not paid to vote, they do not go to the polls.”
The memo quoted Burmeister as saying the former mayor of Augusta, Ed McIntyre, offered to put her name on a palm card to be given to voters picked up in a van and instructed to vote on the names on the card in exchange for $2,000. McIntyre died last year and was convicted in 1984 of extortion.
On Thursday, according to the Atlanta paper, Burmeister said the memo’s record of what she said was “more accurate than not,” but added: “That sounds pretty harsh. I don’t remember saying those exact words.”
On Friday, however a suburban Atlanta newspaper carried quotes by Burmeister claiming the Journal-Constitution article “erroneously misrepresented comments made by me concerning voter turnout in my district.”
“While I do believe that voter fraud is rampant in our state, I in no way believe that African Americans in my district or around the state only vote when they are paid to do so,” she said. “If the AJC’s misrepresentation has offended anyone, I apologize. However, I do not believe that these statements are accurate and they are in no way a reflection of my beliefs on this issue. I am equally offended by the newspapers blatant misrepresentation of the facts.”
An AJC columnist on Monday called Burmeister’s comments in the Justice Department memo “racism, pure and ugly.”
Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat and veteran of the civil rights movement, called the remarks, “an affront to every black voter not just in my district but in the state of Georgia.”
State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, called her claim “reprehensible demagoguery” and said she owes the African-American community an apology.
Burmeister, who took office in 2001, is no stranger to controversy.
In April, after failing to get anyone from predominantly black Richmond County legislative delegation to sign her bill to restructure the county government, Burmeister got legislators from other counties to introduce a bill, which only affected Richmond County, effectively giving whites control of a government consisting of five whites and five blacks, with the mayor able to vote only in the case of a 5-5 tie.
Under the old system, which required six votes for a law to pass, if black commissioners anticipated a 5-5 tie one could leave the room or abstain, making it impossible for a six-vote majority. The mayor would not be able to break the potential tie because it didn’t exist.
White critics viewed that as obstructionism and said the county government was dysfunctional and in need of immediate repair. Many blacks, meanwhile, felt it was an appropriate check-and-balance–similar to a Senate filibuster–and saw no need for change.
A devout Lutheran who keeps a Bible on her desk and a business-card holder displaying a cross, Burmeister takes offense at being labeled a racist.
As black legislators and some white Democrats staged a walkout protesting a House vote approving the voter ID bill, Rep. Randal Mangham, D-Decatur, dropped shackles on Burmeister’s desk. The chains had been used as a prop during debate to symbolize the oppression of minorities.
Burmeister told the Journal-Constitution in March she was “disappointed, offended and somewhat threatened” by the gesture, although she said Mangham later apologized to her.
Burmeister, daughter of an immigrant from Finland, grew up in Wisconsin and said she never thought much about race until moving to the South. She said a black family lived next door to hers, and she never saw them as different.
“I grew up in the North,” she said. “I didn’t look at a minority like a minority. When people tell me I’m racist–and that happens in Augusta–it’s hurtful because I don’t look at that.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.