By Dave Williams
ATLANTA - A federal judge upheld Georgia's controversial, new voter ID law Thursday, just in time for the state to start enforcing it.
The law, first enacted by the Republican-controlled General Assembly in 2005 and adjusted last year, requires voters to show photo identification at the polls.
It will take effect on Monday, when early voting begins in 23 counties holding special elections on Sept. 18.
In a 159-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy, of Rome, declared that the coalition of good government, civil rights and voting rights groups that brought the lawsuit failed to show how it would violate the constitutional rights of the voters they represented.
"Plaintiffs have not demonstrated that the photo ID requirement places an undue or significant burden on the right to vote," Murphy wrote.
"Additionally, plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that the photo ID requirement is not reasonably related to the state's interest in preventing fraud in voting."
Republican leaders began pushing the legislation as a top priority shortly after the GOP captured complete control of the General Assembly during the 2004 elections.
The bill the legislature passed in 2005 reduced the forms of identification voters could use at the polls from 17, including bank statements and utility bills, down to six, all of which had to include a photo.
The measure's sponsors pitched it as a way to safeguard against voter fraud.
Democrats complained in vain that requiring a photo ID would make it harder for elderly, poor and minority voters to exercise their constitutional rights at the ballot box, because they are less likely to own a driver's license or passport.
Murphy struck down the law later that year, comparing a provision charging non-drivers $20 for a state-issued photo ID to an unconstitutional poll tax.
Republican leaders responded last year with a new bill waiving the fee and making photo IDs available at all 159 county elections offices.
Still, the new law is among the toughest in the nation. Voters who don't have a photo ID with them at the polls can cast a provisional ballot, but must return with a valid photo ID within 48 hours to have the vote count.
Most states that require a photo ID allow those without one to fill out a sworn affidavit affirming their identity, and the ballot is then counted.
Opponents of the Georgia law also challenged it in state court, with former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes among the lawyers representing the plaintiffs.
But the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously upheld the law in June, declaring that none of the voters who had agreed to become plaintiffs in the case had demonstrated that their right to vote would be impaired by having to show a photo ID.
Following Thursday's ruling, Gov. Sonny Perdue and Secretary of State Karen Handel, both Republicans, cited similar language from Murphy as a key element in his decision.
"Very important lawyers have scoured Georgia trying to find someone aggrieved [by the law] and have not been able to do so," the governor said.
Handel also noted that the ruling cited the voter education drive her office has been conducting in recent weeks, including more than 250,000 letters to voters identified as not having a driver's license, hundreds of radio ads, a toll-free telephone line, an information web site and training of elections officials and poll workers in the 23 counties.
"Voting is a precious right," Perdue said. "We're going to do everything we can to allow people to participate."
While vowing to undertake their own voter education efforts, Democrats criticized Thursday's ruling. "Georgia's voter ID law continues to represent a burden to the public and to the right to vote," Georgia Democratic Chairman Jane Kidd said in a prepared statement.
Democrats also continued to complain that the new law does nothing to address absentee voting. "We really haven't seen a problem with the type of voter fraud this law allegedly addresses," state Democratic Committee spokesman, Martin Metheny, said. "You need a solution that addresses voter fraud across the board."
Handel called a bill the legislature passed this year stiffening penalties for absentee voter fraud a "good first step" and vowed to consider further steps to address that issue.