A federal judge on Tuesday granted a preliminary injunction blocking Georgia’s controversial voter-ID law, saying it amounts to a poll tax and is ineffective in combating voter fraud.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy of Rome, Ga., is a first-round win for a number of plaintiffs, including the League of Women Voters, NAACP and Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, who are suing to have the new law requiring voters at polling places to produce a photo-ID found unconstitutional.
Prior to 1998, voters in Georgia, like most other states, were not required to show identification to vote. In 1997 the General Assembly passed a law requiring registered voters in Georgia to present one of 17 forms of identification to election officials before being allowed to vote.
Acceptable forms of identification included a utility bill, government or payroll check or bank statement showing the voter’s name and address.
In 2005 the General Assembly adopted a new bill requiring polling places to be presented a government-issued photo ID before allowing a person to vote.
Opponents said the bill is unnecessary and discriminates against blacks. They compare it to the poll tax, which was used to keep poor, black people from voting before it was abolished 60 years ago.
Black legislators walked out in protest when the bill passed Georgia’s State Senate along party lines in March.
Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have denounced the law, the most stringent in the nation, and civil rights leaders have claimed it will create barriers for minorities and have a chilling effect on voter participation.
A New York Times editorial called it “part of a nationwide drive to erect barriers at the polls.”
Secretary of State Cathy Cox said in a letter to Gov. Sonny Perdue that she could not recall a single case of documented voter fraud during her nine-year tenure in the office, except for those involving absentee ballots or voter registration.
Cox said poor and elderly residents are less likely to drive, and do not need a state-issued ID for other than voting purposes. An $8 fee for an identification card, while nominal for some, could create a burden on poor voters, similar to a $1.50 poll tax ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966.
Cox said geography also burdened rural residents, who must travel farther to obtain an ID. Georgia has 56 offices that issue driver’s licenses, serving 159 counties.
Signed April 22 by Gov. Sonny Perdue, the law went into effect July 1, subject to review by the U.S. Department of Justice, which approved the law Aug. 26, making Georgia one of only two states requiring a photo ID as an absolute requirement to vote.
Finding the new law imposes “severe restrictions on the right to vote,” Murphy said election officials cannot implement the law in time for next month’s statewide elections.
Murphy said forcing voters to pay for a voter-ID card amounts to a poll tax, which are banned by the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
While the state has a legitimate interest in curbing voter fraud, he said, the voter-ID bill is too broad, because it does nothing to reduce the possibility of fraudulent use of absentee ballots or fraudulent registration of voters.
Absentee ballots are used more often by whites than blacks.
Even though the Georgia law allows for ID cards to be given free to people who sign an affidavit declaring they are indigent, the judge said many voters may be unaware of the provision or too embarrassed to say they cannot afford to pay for an identification card.
Identifying the right to vote as a “fundamental right,” Murphy said the plaintiffs have a substantial likelihood of proving the law “unduly burdens” the right to vote and is a poll tax.
The 123-page ruling, posted on-line by the ACLU of Georgia, did not address allegations that the law violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Murphy, a former state legislator, commented that he has “great respect for the Georgia legislature” but “has more respect for the Constitution.”
State Sen. Cecil Staton (R-Macon), author of the Senate version of the bill, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he disagreed with “strong language” in the decision. “I don’t see how this can be considered a poll tax,” he said. “Obviously, the Department of Justice did not consider it a poll tax.”
Staton told the Macon Telegraph he believes the law will ultimately be upheld. “This is not over,” he said. “Some judge in Rome–where there has been venue-shopping in order to try to derail this–it’s not going to be the final word.”
Staton, a freshman senator who previously ran unsuccessfully for Congress, owns a radio network and two publishing companies. One, Smyth & Helwys, publishes books and curriculum widely used by moderate Baptist churches. The other, Stroud & Hall, publishes conservative political books by authors including former Sen. Zell Miller and former Congressman Bob Barr.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.