William Faulkner, a Mississippi author
known for his incisive writings about
the American south, once wrote: “The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even
past.” We are reminded of Faulkner’s observation as a number of voter identification
bills that will erect new barriers to minority political participation make their
way through state legislatures, with Georgia’s being one of the most onerous.
Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue recently signed H.B. 244, a voter identification
bill that is one of the strictest measures in the United States for screening
voters. It requires voters to present 1 of 6 forms of government-issued photo
identification at the polls. Under the old law, Georgia voters were allowed
to present any of 17 forms of identification; most of them, including bank
statements and utility bills, contained no photos.
As of result of Georgia’s long history of racial discrimination in voting,
all of the state’s voting changes must be pre-approved by the U.S. Department
of Justice under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to root out discriminatory
intent or effects. Accordingly, H.B. 244 cannot take effect until it is reviewed
and approved by the Department of Justice.
Five other states require voters to furnish photo identification at the polls,
but all accept alternatives. Florida and Louisiana, for instance, allow voters
who sign affidavits at the polling place to cast a ballot.
Sponsors of Georgia’s voter ID bill assert that the legislation is intended
to prevent fraud and enhance confidence in election results. But since the
bill was not created in response to any particular instance of fraud, and its
sponsors proffered an insufficient record of voter fraud in the state, it is
doubtful that the bill is necessary. Indeed, supporters of the bill have yet
to make a convincing case that existing methods of discouraging and addressing
fraud are insufficient.
Unfortunately, Georgia’s legislature is not alone in claiming that the mere
risk of fraud mandates more stringent identification requirements of voters.
As part of a growing national trend of exploiting the fear of fraud to hinder
access to the ballot box, photo ID legislation was introduced this year in
nearly a dozen state legislatures across the country, and such bills passed
in Wisconsin and Indiana legislatures.
Under the Wisconsin bill, a voter would be required to produce a driver’s
license, official state ID or military ID. Currently, a registered voter in
Wisconsin need only to give her name and address to cast a ballot.
Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle vetoed the bill, and the state legislature failed
Lawmakers in Indiana passed a similar voter identification bill, which Governor
Mitch Daniels has indicated he will probably sign.
While the anti-fraud benefits of the voter ID bill are dubious, there is evidence
that the identification requirement would impose a severe burden on poor, minority,
elderly and rural voters, who are less likely to have photo identification.
Though more study is necessary, one report by the Task Force on the Federal
Election System shows that about ten percent of the American electorate does
not have any form of state identification. A study by the Department of Justice
revealed that Blacks in Louisiana were five times less likely to have photo
identification than whites.
Without question, photo identification requirements generally, and Georgia’s
in particular, will have a greater impact on certain communities and will reduce
participation by otherwise eligible voters.
Historically, Georgia was one of the most relentless and systematic states
in its efforts to deny voting and office holding to Blacks after the Civil
War. It utilized every state instrument of disfranchisement to suppress the
Black vote and safeguard white supremacy, including terror and violence, literacy
tests, poll taxes, and white-only primaries. Georgia also tailored its felon
disfranchisement law to require the loss of voting rights for only those crimes
committed primarily by Blacks.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Georgia’s legislature fought Congress’s
passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964, and the Voting Rights
Act of 1965. Not surprisingly, on the eve of the Voting Rights Act’s passage,
only 16 percent of Blacks in Georgia counties with Black voting-age majorities
were registered to vote, notwithstanding the fact that the 15th Amendment granted
Blacks the right to vote nearly a century earlier.
Georgia’s voter ID bill underscores the continued relevance of the Voting
Rights Act. Widely regarded as the greatest achievement of the Civil Rights
Movement, the Voting Rights Act abolished many of Georgia’s discriminatory
voting practices, and, by shining a light on abuses, profoundly impacted Black
registration and the opportunities for minority voters to elect their preferred
candidates to office. Today, in its fortieth anniversary year, Section 5 of
the Voting Rights Act will be called upon to protect Georgia’s citizens from
discrimination in voting.
The fact that we once again find ourselves faced with state laws that will
impede minority voter participation lends truth to Faulkner’s words that the
past is never dead. In fact, in states like Georgia, it is not even past.
Ryan Paul Haygood is a voting rights attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense
and Educational Fund, Inc.