In every session of the General Assembly, there's at least one moment when the normally button-down proceedings slip into surrealism. That moment came early this year when, just after the House approved an updated version of the Republicans' voter ID bill over the protests of black Democrats, Speaker Glenn Richardson yielded his podium to 2002 "American Idol" runner-up Justin Guarini, who proceeded to warble his own updated version of the old Carpenters hit, "Sing."
Lawmakers who had spent the previous few minutes trading allegations of dishonesty, segregationist motives and defiance of God's wishes gave Guarini -- accompanied by his dad, former Atlanta Police Chief and current Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell -- a standing ovation, and then went to lunch.
When GOP legislators rammed their new and improved voter ID bill through the Senate and House last month, it proved an impressive display of game-face unity. If further proof were needed that today's Republicans are a more cohesive group than Georgia Democrats ever were, the new voter ID law -- signed Jan. 26 by a swift-penned Gov. Sonny Perdue -- provides it. But then, it's usually easiest to maintain harmony on a matter that's about partisan politics, not policy -- as Democratic lawmakers say is the case with voter ID.
"Wherever Republicans control state legislatures -- Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Texas -- you see similar measures being proposed and adopted," notes state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta. "This is just a ploy to keep Republicans in power just a little while longer because they're worried about the fall elections."
Voter ID 2.0 differs from last year's court-enjoined version in two main ways. While it still requires voters to show one of six forms of government-issued photo ID at the polls, the new law does away with the $20 fee to obtain a state ID card. In October, U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy suspended the 2005 law, calling the fee an unconstitutional poll tax.
The other change mandates that all 159 Georgia counties have a location where registered voters can get their free state ID card -- a concession to those impertinent enough to point out that elderly, rural voters might be hard-pressed to travel several counties over to get a state ID at the nearest of Georgia's 53 existing driver's license bureaus (especially when the reason the voters lacked photo ID in the first place is that they don't drive).
Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, seemed more than a little exasperated last week when he told Democratic senators that the new law was drafted to satisfy concerns voiced by "your hand-picked judge," meaning Murphy, a Carter appointee. Williams didn't mention that Murphy's ruling was subsequently upheld by a three-judge review panel containing two Reagan appointees.
But Emmet Bondurant, the lead attorney in last year's lawsuit against the state, predicts this law will be blocked, too: "It's people who are least mobile who are most affected by the law, and even having one [ID-issuing] machine per county is not nearly enough for the number of people without a driver's license or other form of photo ID," a figure estimated to be at least 300,000 voters.
Besides, Bondurant claims, the motivation behind the law is to create procedural hurdles to discourage poor, black and elderly Georgians from voting -- undoubtedly because those demographic groups tend to vote Democratic. And the 1965 Voting Rights Act directs federal election authorities to take into account the apparent intended effect of changes in voting laws in Georgia and other Southern states that have histories of attempting to suppress minority votes.
The most obvious sign that GOP lawmakers were aiming to disenfranchise Democratic voters rather than their stated goal of reducing voter fraud, Bondurant says, is that the new law actually loosens restrictions on absentee ballots, where the lion's share of documented voter fraud occurs. Absentee voters, by contrast, are more likely to vote Republican.
"The law is a pure sham, a pretext; its partisan purposes are so plain," Bondurant says.
Of course, Georgia has a rich and recent history of manipulating the law for partisan purposes -- one that extends to both parties.
After Sen. Wyche Fowler's surprise runoff defeat in 1992 by Paul Coverdell, then a Republican state senator, the Democrat-controlled state Legislature changed election rules so that state and federal officials had to win only 45 percent of the general election vote to avoid a runoff, instead of the previous 50 percent. The reason: Runoffs historically favor Republicans. (In a little-noted provision of the 2005 voter ID law, the GOP changed the margin of victory back to 50 percent.)
Similarly, Democrats under Gov. Roy Barnes gerrymandered Georgia's congressional districts in an attempt to reduce GOP voting strength; when Republicans captured the Senate last year, they pushed through their own redistricting plan.
This year, Republican leaders are trying to push the pendulum even farther in the other direction as they look at redrawing a single state Senate district in Athens to protect GOP Sen. Brian Kemp from a challenge by Democratic state Rep. Jane Kidd, daughter of the late Gov. Ernest Vandiver.
"They're trying to hang on to every seat they can," says Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, who sees the voter ID law as part of a larger effort to boost the GOP's fortunes at the polls.
"This is a close election year and they think they need it," Smyre says.
But even with Perdue's speedy signing, the new law's chances for affecting the Nov. 7 general election may be slim. The required approval by the U.S. Department of Justice is a foregone conclusion given last year's experience, in which political appointees overruled the objections of veteran DOJ attorneys. Still, that process could take 120 days. And then there are the lawsuits.
Bondurant already has updated his 2005 federal complaint to include the new law, but says an anticipated state court challenge could make for an even stronger argument that the voter ID law violates the Georgia Constitution by adding voting requirements not included in that document.
It's rumored that Barnes is expected to file the state lawsuit, but the former governor has not confirmed the scuttlebutt.
In any case, a state suit would end up in the Georgia Supreme Court, possibly as early as this summer, where it would be decided, in part, by Justice Harold Melton, a young black Republican appointed last summer by Perdue.
Watching Melton give the thumbs-down to his party's favorite new law would be a surreal experience in itself.
MORE ON VOTER ID: Doug Monroe addresses absentee ballot fraud in Humbug Square.
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