Voting Rights Advocates Challenge Georgia Photo ID Law in Federal Court

Affiliate: ACLU of Georgia
September 19, 2005 12:00 am

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New Law Decried as Unconstitutional “”Poll Tax”” for Elderly, Minority and Low-Income Voters

ROME, GA – A consortium of voting rights advocates and private attorneys filed a lawsuit today in federal district court challenging House Bill 244, which the groups charge violates the state and federal constitutions, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The measure being challenged, which was signed into law by Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue in April, reduces the various forms of identification that voters can use from 17 to six, and makes government issued photo identification absolutely required in order to vote.

“”House Bill 244 discriminates against minorities, the elderly, the poor and the disabled,”” said Neil Bradley, Associate Director of the Atlanta-based American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project, and one of the attorneys in this case. “”The fee that is required to obtain a five-year state ID card is tantamount to a poll tax, which was abolished by the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.””

The lawsuit was filed against state and local election officials and asks the federal court to declare H.B. 244 “”unconstitutional, null and void,”” and issue both a preliminary and permanent injunction against implementation of the law.

In the complaint, the advocates charge that the law:

  • violates the Fourteenth Amendment because it treats voters unequally;
  • violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act because it results in the denial of voting rights to African American and Latino voters;
  • violates state law because it creates an entirely new set of voting qualifications beyond those specified in the Georgia Constitution;
  • violates the 1964 Civil Rights Act because it applies different standards for voters who vote in person compared to those who vote by absentee ballot and disqualifies voters based solely on whether they have a government-issued photo ID, even if they are personally known to election officials or their signatures match the one on their official voter registration card.

“”Once again African Americans in Georgia must seek justice from the federal courts to protect us from state officials who are eager to deprive us of our fundamental right to vote,”” said Walter C. Butler, President of the NAACP State Conference of Branches, which is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

In addition to the NAACP, other organizations represented in the lawsuit include: Common Cause/Georgia, the League of Women Voters of Georgia, the Central Presbyterian Outreach and Advocacy Center, the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus and Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta. Groups providing legal counsel to the effort include the ACLU, AARP, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The lawsuit was also filed on behalf two individual voters: Tony Watkins, a black resident of Rome, and Clara Williams, a black resident of Fulton County. Both Watkins and Williams are legally registered and qualified to vote, but neither voter possesses a Georgia driver’s license, passport or other form of photo ID specified in H.B. 244.

Ted Shaw, Director-Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York, said that the Supreme Court made clear when it struck down Georgia’s poll tax in the 1966 case, Breedlove v. Suttles, that the affluence of the voter could not be an electoral standard.

“”It is ironic that the leading Supreme Court decision striking down the poll tax overruled an earlier decision involving Georgia’s poll tax,”” said Shaw. “”Too many Georgia officials unfortunately seem unfamiliar with this history.””

Voting rights advocates decided to bring the lawsuit after the U.S. Department of Justice granted preclearance to the measure on August 26. Because of Georgia’s history of voting discrimination, the 1965 Voting Rights Act requires that any changes to election laws or voting procedures receive clearance from federal officials before going into effect.

“”This broad-based group of plaintiffs has taken on the task to ensure that this discriminatory law is struck down after the Department of Justice failed to do its job,”” stated Jon Greenbaum, Director of the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C.

In addition to its constitutional and legal claims, the groups argue in the lawsuit that the stated purpose of Georgia’s photo ID requirement – to deter voter fraud – was a pretext “”intended to conceal the true purpose of the amendment, which was, and is to suppress voting by the poor, the elderly, the infirm, African American, Hispanic and other minority voters by increasing the difficulty of voting.””

“”Fraudulent voting already is prohibited as a crime and is severely punished under Georgia law,”” said Tisha Tallman, Southeast Regional Counsel for MALDEF in Atlanta, and one of the attorneys helping bring the lawsuit. “”There was no need for H.B. 244, except to suppress voting among those elderly, low income, minority and disabled Georgians who lack birth certificates and other costly paperwork that will be required for them to obtain state-issued ID cards. The case against H.B. 244 is strong and we fully intend to prevail in court.””

According to voting rights experts, a majority of 30 states do not require registered voters to present any form of identification as a condition of voting, while 20 states require voters to present some form of ID. Of these 20, only two (Georgia and Indiana) require voters to present a photo ID as the sole method of identification in order to vote.

“”Georgia now has the most draconian voter identification requirement in the nation,”” said the ACLU’s Bradley. “”By striking down H.B. 244, this lawsuit will protect the fundamental right to vote and bring Georgia back into the mainstream.””

For a copy of the complaint, go to: www.aclu.org/voting-rights/resources/downloads/Georgia%20Photo%20ID%20COMPLAINT%209-19-05.pdf

For more information on voting rights, go to www.aclu.org/voting-rights.

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