Georgia's Undemocratic Voter Law

Published July 20th 2005 in The New York Times
Georgia has passed a disturbing new law that bars people from voting without government-issued photo identification and seems primarily focused on putting up obstacles for black and poor voters. The Justice Department is now weighing whether the law violates the Voting Rights Act. Clearly it does, and it should be blocked from taking effect.

The new law's supporters claim that it is an attempt to reduce voter fraud, but Secretary of State Cathy Cox has said she cannot recall a single case during her tenure when anyone impersonated a voter.

In the same period, she says, there have been numerous allegations of fraud involving absentee ballots. But the Georgia Legislature has passed a law that focuses on voter identification while actually making absentee ballots more prone to misuse.

The new law will make it harder for elderly Georgians to vote as well. It has been estimated that more than 150,000 older Georgians who voted in the 2004 presidential election do not have driver's licenses, and are unlikely to have other acceptable forms of identification. According to census data, black Georgians are far less likely to have access to a car than white Georgians, so they are at a distinct disadvantage when driver's licenses have an important role in proving people's eligibility to vote.

Under the Voting Rights Act, Georgia's law must be cleared by the Justice Department before it can take effect. There can be little doubt that the law would have "the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race," and it therefore must be rejected. But in the current Justice Department, there is a real danger that this decision will be based on politics rather than law.

Georgia's new identification requirement is part of a nationwide drive to erect barriers at the polls. Indiana also recently passed a new photo-identification requirement, and several other states, including Ohio, are considering the addition of such requirements.

There are many steps states can take to reduce election fraud. 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.