After two years of legal wrangling, it finally appears as if you'll have to flash your driver's license or another form of photo identification when you go to vote this fall.
Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel declared the photo ID requirement in effect for this year's local elections, and a federal judge has upheld it. An appeal is pending so it may be overturned again, but it's the closest we've come to having the requirement put in place.
Yet we still can't help but wonder if the whole argument over photo IDs is based on a theory, or a reality that no longer exists.
The question is whether requiring a photo ID card at the polls will deny anyone the right to vote. Provided the cards are offered by the state for free (they are); are easy to get (they should be); and that everyone has advance knowledge about the requirement (they do now), who is going to be harmed by it? In fact, how many Georgia citizens in 2007 do not own some form of photo ID?
No one knows for sure, and it's hard to prove a negative. But we suspect it's not that many. The case is getting harder to make that this law will result in massive voter disenfranchisement.
Is the law, as some say, an attempt to fix a problem that doesn't exist? Perhaps. One can find only anecdotal evidence of fraud linked to misidentified voters.
But could it happen? Sure, it could. The Associated Press reported recently of a woman in Seattle who was able to register her dog to vote, and sent in an absentee ballot with his paw print on it. That's why similar restrictions also should placed upon those who vote by absentee ballot to avoid potential abuse.
So why wait until abuse is found when it can be prevented beforehand? Few thought punch-card ballots and hanging chads would be an issue until the 2000 election; that method of voting now is all but extinct because of the mess it caused in Florida. It is best to anticipate such problems and head them off before another election gets thrown into the courts.
Opponents of the voter ID rule claim it is a ploy by Republican leaders in Georgia to deny poor, minority or elderly voters their right to cast a ballot, calling it another form of the "poll tax" seen in the segregation era. Democrats, convinced that GOP motives are sinister and out to harm their voters, are braced to defend any slight, real or imagined.
But whatever the GOP's motives, that notion assumes that most poor and minority voters don't have driver's licenses or other forms of photo ID. They have yet to prove that this is the case and that a large number of voters will be denied access to ballots.
In fact, U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy, who originally struck down the law as unconstitutional, said the lack of evidence that the ruling would discriminate against any voters is why he was willing to change his mind and back the law this time.
Supporters of the law say their real motivation is concern that the growing number of illegal immigrants in Georgia could attempt to register and vote with false IDs. This theory, too, is based on an imagined fear that has yet to be seen; in fact, anyone could fake a photo ID as well if they wanted to. Still, it makes sense to get ahead of potential abuse before it happens. If it could be a problem, let's fix it before it becomes one.
Identity theft is becoming all too common in our Internet-based society. Access to a person's Social Security number can open up a world of criminal possibilities, so it only follows that all means necessary to verify one's identity should be used. We must present a photo ID to cash a check, buy alcohol or cigarettes, even rent a movie. Why not require the same to vote for who will lead the free world, our state and our communities?
Whatever the final ruling on photo ID, we hope no one finds it oppressive and limits their right to vote. If we see evidence that it does, we will concede that the law should be delayed until proper IDs can be provided to those who lack them.
But keep in mind that voting, while our Constitutional right, also requires a certain degree of effort on our part. To do so, we must register properly and secure a ballot on or before Election Day by absentee methods or by visiting the polls. Proving that we are who we are with a photo ID is just one small part of that requirement, and it does not seem unreasonable or discriminatory.
Originally published Sept. 16, 2007