Civil Rights Groups Urge Justice Department to Block Georgia Photo ID Law

Affiliate: ACLU of Georgia
July 8, 2005 12:00 am

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New Law Would Discriminate Against Minority Voters, Groups Charge

ATLANTA — More than two dozen civil rights, religious, labor and advocacy groups urged the Department of Justice to block implementation of a new Georgia law which they say will have a substantially negative “racial impact” on minority voters. The groups argue that the new photo identification requirements contained in Georgia House Bill 244 are unnecessary and were purposefully adopted to make minority voters worse off.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project, which is part of the coalition, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires that any changes to election laws in nine states, including Georgia, as well as portions of seven others, receive clearance from federal officials before going into effect.

“Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act clearly places the burden of proof on Georgia officials to show that this new law does not have a discriminatory purpose or effect,” said Neil Bradley, Associate Director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project in Atlanta. “Based on Georgia’s own submission to the Justice Department, it is clear that the state has failed that test and the law should not be permitted to go into effect.”

House Bill 244, which was passed on March 31 and signed by Governor Sonny Perdue in April, reduces the various forms of identification that voters can use from 17 to six, and makes photo identification absolutely required in order to vote.

In a 13-page letter sent late yesterday, 25 groups and seven attorneys cite recent census data showing that African Americans in Georgia are nearly five times less likely than whites to have access to a motor vehicle, and hence are less likely to possess a drivers’ license, which is one of the approved forms of photo identification. African Americans also are nearly six times more likely than whites in Georgia to live below the poverty line. And because Georgia has only 56 Department of Motor Vehicle Services (DMVS) offices statewide, compared to its 159 counties, African Americans will face increased obstacles and costs to securing photo identification, said the groups.

“Sixty years ago, Georgia’s all-white legislature abolished the poll tax, thereby preventing any Georgia citizen from being charged money to vote. This new law turns back the clock and violates that principle,” said Bradley.

In the letter, the groups argue that the primary justification for Georgia’s new photo identification requirements — to deter voter fraud — was both flawed and unfounded. The groups pointed to the state’s already severe criminal sanctions for voter fraud, and noted the absence of evidence that fraud by impersonating a voter is a problem in Georgia.

“The photo identification provisions of HB 244 are an affront to many of our most basic legal principles and jurisprudence related to a person’s fundamental right to vote,” said Seth Cohen, an Atlanta-based attorney with the international law firm Kilpatrick Stockton LLP and a member of the counsel committee that helped prepare the letter. “As the letter to the DOJ demonstrates, this is a belief that is shared by a diverse group of individuals and organizations and which is supported by an overabundance of facts.”

The groups also called on the Justice Department to more thoroughly investigate a number of factors before deciding whether to authorize implementation of H.B. 244, including the racial breakdown of counties with and without DMVS locations, the travel distance to DMVS locations from areas with high concentrations of minority voters and other socio-economic data associated with the cost and use of photo identification by minorities.

“We hope and expect the Justice Department to do its job by requiring the state to meet its burden of proof to show why this new legislation will not harm minority voters,” said Jon Greenbaum, Director of the Voting Rights Project for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and a former DOJ attorney. “From our point of view, the evidence is quite clear that the state has not met that burden and H.B. 244 will make minority voters considerably worse off.”

A copy of the letter can be found at: /node/35503.

A copy of Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox’s letter urging Governor Sonny Perdue to veto H.B. 244 can be found at: /node/35501.

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