ATLANTA — Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue signed a divisive law Tuesday making the state only the second after Arizona to require prospective voters to prove their U.S. citizenship, a practice opponents say would keep the poor, elderly and minorities away from the ballot box.
To take effect, the law must obtain clearance from the U.S. Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act. And legal challenges appeared likely despite supporters who insist the measure would safeguard the integrity of the voting process.
The law revived a racially charged battle in Georgia. Critics complain it would disenfranchise poor and minority voters — many of them U.S. citizens — who lack required documents.
Starting Jan. 1, 2010 if Justice approves, the Georgia law would require all applying for voter registration to provide documented proof of U.S. citizenship. Those who stay on active voter rolls and have already registered before then would not have to submit such documents as a U.S. passport, naturalization documents or driver’s license or birth certificate.
“It’s tantamount to a poll tax,” said Elise Shore, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She said the group was considering a legal challenge if the law clears the Justice Department.
Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, a top backer, said proof of citizenship is needed to prevent voter fraud. She expressed confidence the law could withstand a challenge, noting it was modeled after Arizona’s precedent-setting law.
It’s been more than 40 years since the Voting Rights Act was signed, barring voting practices used throughout the South for years to keep poor blacks from voting.
Currently, voters must simply check a box on a voter registration application affirming they are a U.S. citizen.
Similar bills have surfaced in at least five other states — Colorado, Illinois, Tennessee, Washington and Virginia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
For years, Georgia was mired in a legal battle over a law requiring a valid, government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot in-person. The law was eventually cleared by a federal judge and took effect for last year’s elections.
“With photo ID we have extremely high integrity at the ballot box,” Handel said. “Now we need to do the same with our voter registration.”
She said several investigations are pending into allegations of non-citizens voting.
The Georgia branch of Common Cause, which led a lawsuit against the photo ID, challenged that. Executive director Bill Bozarth said the new law seeks to address a problem that has not been proven to exist — that of non-citizens voting in elections in Georgia.
“It certainly has xenophobic overtones,” Bozarth said.