No ID? Votes cast can become castoffs

By The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published November 2nd 2007 in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
More than 160,000 registered voters could cast ballots in Tuesday's election only to have them not counted under Georgia's law requiring photo identification at the polls.

Voters without acceptable identification will be allowed to cast provisional ballots in next week's county and municipal elections, but those ballots will be counted only if the voters show appropriate photo identification to their county registrars within 48 hours of the polls closing.

Nearly 75,000 of the voters live in the five-county metro Atlanta area, but rural counties in south Georgia have a higher percentage of voters without IDs, according to an analysis of a state database by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In August, Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel directed her staff to compare voter rolls with records from the Department of Driver Services to identify voters who may not have driver's licenses or state IDs. That effort yielded a database of 198,000 names.

Handel acknowledges that the state cannot determine whether those voters have other acceptable forms of ID,such as a U.S. passport or military ID, which are allowed under the law.

But she said her office has sent notices to voters whose names are in the database to be sure they are aware of the new requirement.

The Georgia General Assembly in 2006 approved Senate Bill 84, a measure that requires Georgia voters to show one of six types of government-issued photo ID. But the law was challenged in federal and state court, and temporary injunctions were issued. Two recent court decisions, however, upheld the law.

To make sure those affected are aware of the requirement, Handel said her office is spending about $550,000 for its voter outreach, which also includes mailing to churches, libraries and local chambers of commerce, as well as radio advertising. "I think that's the right, fair and most responsible thing to do, to cast the widest net possible when educating about the issue," said Handel, a Republican who supports the law.

Between Aug. 1 and Oct. 9, nearly 950 people acquired state ID cards, she said. But several voters who were listed by the state as possibly not having photo IDs told the newspaper that the information was inaccurate.

Some said they suspected their names were missing from the drivers records database because their licenses had been temporarily suspended.

Others, like Wanda June Drennan, were flagged because names on their driver's licenses and voting records don't match. The 72-year-old voter, who lives in Trion, said she has had a driver's license since she was 16. It has her full name on it. But she has often signed her name at the polls by the name everyone knows her by: June Drennan.

Mary Wilson was correctly tagged as having no identification, but she's not overly concerned. "I'm 93 now," said Wilson, a resident of Ty Ty, a small town in Tift County with a population of 716. "I'm not planning on voting anymore."

A look at the numbers

The controversy over voter photo IDs in Georgia erupted in 2005. During an emotional legislative debate, a black lawmaker dropped shackles on the desk of the bill's sponsor.

Others called the bill a "poll tax" and compared the proposed law to tactics used in southern states for decades after Reconstruction to suppress the black vote.

African Americans make up 28 percent of all Georgia voters. The newspaper's analysis found that blacks represent 46 percent of those identified as not having proper identification. In DeKalb County, for example, African-Americans make up 54 percent of registered voters, but they make up 64 percent of voters there who may not have an ID.

That statistic troubles Edward DuBose, president of the Georgia NAACP. He said the organization is trying to reach people across the state to tell them about the new law. He also said the organization has not exhausted its attempt to thwart the law through the court system.

"We are very concerned about what possibly will happen at the Nov. 6 election given the newness of all of this and people not understanding the rules," DuBose said.

Several organizations, such as the AARP of Georgia, opposed the law because of concerns about its impact on retired and elderly voters. In 2005, the organization estimated that there were 153,000 Georgians older than 60 who voted in 2004 but didn't have government-issued photo IDs.

The newspaper's analysis found that 34 percent of registered Georgia voters who may not have photo IDs are 30 or younger. Only 17 percent of Georgia voters who may lack photo IDs are 65 or older.

Ken Mitchell, AARP Georgia state director, said he believes the state's effort to reach the 198,000 voters who did not show up in the driver's services records is a good first step. But he said there may be more Georgians without IDs who have not been identified. He said the organization believes that the country's democratic process works best when there are no unnecessary barriers to voting.

"While we need to protect the integrity of the election process, I would hate to see any citizen, young or older, turned away at the polls for lack of a driver's license or special photo ID," Mitchell said.

Hard-hit areas

The newspaper found that five rural counties — Atkinson, Chattahoochee, Quitman, Wheeler and Taliaferro — had the largest percentage of registered voters who may not have photo IDs. In Atkinson, a south Georgia county with a population of about 7,600, nearly 17 percent, or one in six, of registered voters may not have a photo ID.

The voter ID law also may have a significant effect on urban voters, especially in metro Atlanta. About 75,000 registered voters in Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Cobb and Clayton counties many not have photo IDs. That's 38 percent of those identified by the state as possibly not having identification. About 13 percent of the state's voters who might not have IDs live in the 5th Congressional District of U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Atlanta), which includes parts of Clayton, Fulton and DeKalb.

Jane Kidd, chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, said she remains skeptical about the need for the new law. She points to the fact that state elections officials have not found a single case of someone going to the polls and pretending to be somebody else, although supporters of the law counter that the state did not have a mechanism for detecting that type of fraud before the passage of the measure. Kidd also said she fears that some voters may feel wary about going to the polls because of the new law.

"I really feel like the key is we want people to feel comfortable about their vote," Kidd said. "We want them to feel free to come and vote and not anticipate or fear any confusion or skepticism about who they are and whether they have the right documents."

Many of the voters who may not have a photo ID now have cast ballots in recent elections. More than 60 percent voted in the 2004 general election.

Jennifer Owens, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Georgia, said that while the organization opposed the voter ID law and challenged the law in court, it now is working with the Secretary of State's office to spread the word about the voting requirements.

She recently gave a lecture to an American government class at Georgia Gwinnett College and asked the class to spread the word about the photo ID law. "We're not talking about lawsuits anymore. We're talking about a new requirement," Owens said. "This is the biggest change Georgia has seen in its election laws since 2002, and we just need to be prepared."