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Voting rights advocates have begun legal actions in several states challenging new election laws that would, among other things, require photo identification to vote. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), efforts to mandate photo IDs at the polls in the last year have triggered legal disputes in Georgia, Indiana, Florida, Wisconsin, Arizona and Texas. The controversy over photo IDs heated up still more last week, when a bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform issued a report recommending that all voters nationwide present photo IDs by the year 2010. The commission, led by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker, concluded that photo IDs would help strengthen the integrity of the election process, and that a national uniform requirement is better than piecemeal state voter identification laws. Voting rights advocates in Georgia filed a lawsuit last week challenging a new Georgia law requiring voters to show government-issued photo ID at the polls. Opponents argue that the measure will discourage voting among minorities, the elderly and the poor. Common Cause/Georgia v. Billups, No. 4:05-CV-203 (N.D. Ga.). Moreover, they fear that other states will follow suit. “If the court says this law is constitutional, there is no doubt in my mind that other states across the South will follow suit . . . .[T]his would be returning to the Jim Crow era,” said Georgia state Representative Tyrone Brooks, president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. The U.S. Department of Justice approved the new law in August, despite opposition from groups that allege the rule hurts minorities and the elderly who don’t have access to a secretary of state’s office to get a photo ID. They also argue that the law amounts to a poll tax because it requires people to spend money-in this case, to buy a photo ID for about $20-in order to vote. “We just say this is a tremendous burden. In Georgia, there are 56 places you can get a government-issued photo ID-none are in Atlanta,” said ACLU attorney Neil Bradley, who is representing the plaintiffs in the Georgia suit. The Georgia Attorney General’s Office, which is defending Secretary of State Cathy Cox in the lawsuit, declined to comment. However, a spokesperson for Cox said the secretary is opposed to the new law mandating photo IDs to vote. Cox was named in the suit because the litigants must seek relief from the public officials charged with enforcing the law. Under the Voting Rights Act, Georgia and eight other states with a history of suppressing minority voting must get federal permission to change their voting laws. Those states are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. (The act also covers many counties and townships in seven other states.) Texas earlier this year failed to pass a photo-ID requirement to vote. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states currently require some form of identification to vote, photo or nonphoto. Of those, photo ID is required in Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, South Carolina and South Dakota. Indiana also recently passed a voter identification bill mandating a photo ID, but opponents have filed a lawsuit challenging the measure. Although the Indiana law allows some photo IDs to be obtained without cost from the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles, there is a fee to obtain birth certificates and other documents that are prerequisites for obtaining the BMV identification. The suit asks for a court order preventing the new law from taking effect before any future elections, the next ones being set for May 2006. Attorney James Osburn, an assistant corporate counsel for Indianapolis who is defending the Marion County Election Board in that suit, declined to comment. Crawford v. Marion Co. Election Board, No. 1:05-CV-00634.

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