Regular readers know that I helped draft a voter ID law. It caused some emotion on Friday, but got through the State Senate. The AJC describes it. Here is what they say:
It’s too easy to say the past is never truly past. Every now and then, we must decide which past will stay with us and for how long.
That was at the heart of last Friday’s brief walkout by black legislators at the state Capitol. It was one of those startling, intense clashes of culture sure to help us define Georgia politics for the next generation or so.
The topic was a set of bills, one in the Senate and another in the House, to require that a voter present a photo ID before casting a ballot.
Republican heads were concerned about the Florida of November 2000, a time and place of butterfly ballots and razor-thin margins. Black Democrats had the Mississippi of 1960 on their minds an era of literacy tests and other innocent-looking barriers to the ballot.
GOP lawmakers knew the bills would stir trouble but not how much. “I didn’t anticipate the depth of the emotion,” admitted Sen. Cecil Staton (R-Macon), sponsor of the Senate bill.
“I looked at the current law and the things you can use for voter ID I mean, you can walk in and vote with a power bill?” he said, not without some exasperation.
But the concern is more than just academic. There is a deep suspicion among many newly empowered Republicans that the voting process in many African-American communities is tainted. How else, many ask in private, to explain U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney?
Examples are hard to come by voter fraud is a difficult crime to prosecute, Staton said. “But I think we would be putting our heads in the sand if we did not recognize that voter fraud is going on in this state,” he said.
African-American lawmakers say the Republicans well understand that voters on society’s edges the ones least likely to carry a driver’s license or passport are disproportionately black.
As the bills passed each chamber Friday, some of the anger expressed by black lawmakers was pure theater. State Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur), who wrapped himself in shackles as he walked out, owns three car dealerships.
But Sen. Kasim Reed’s (D-Atlanta) tears of rage as he spoke from the Senate well were quite real. The normally soft-spoken Atlanta lawyer and many others came close to screaming in frustration at the Republican inability to see that, among many black Georgians, voting is as sacred a ritual as going to church, and should remain just as inviolate.
“It’s not part of their life experience, so they don’t think about it,” said Rep. Carolyn Hugley (D-Columbus). “I’m just one generation removed. My mother was 40 years old before she could vote.”
Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown (D-Macon) predicted that the evening would torpedo the GOP’s current effort to woo black voters. “This is a defining moment for the relationship between Republicans and African-Americans,” he declared.
Staton said his legislation is simply the finger of history moving on to other business. “This isn’t about what happened 40 years ago, or about slavery,” he said. “This is about 2005.”
Ultimately, whose past is pertinent isn’t a matter for the Legislature to decide. Georgia remains subject to the Voting Rights Act, and any change in election law must be approved by the federal government. That’s who will decide whose past is truly past.