Millard Grimes: Some things are harder now

May 3, 2014 

I've just opened a jumbo package of typing paper, which with a strong pair of scissors and brute strength required about five minutes. That's not bad compared to getting into most pill bottles, or into plastic and cardboard encased packages which require an acetylene torch to penetrate.

As I grow older I hate to complain about how much harder it is to do simple things because the truth is that most things are easier. But bottle tops are tighter, packages are wrapped firmer... and renewing your driver's license is more complicated.

Just a few years ago you could take your expired license to a nearby supermarket and get it renewed in about 10 minutes, complete with an accompanying bad picture of yourself.

A great step forward was taken by the state of Georgia with the introduction of five-year licenses. But five years fly by and a few weeks ago I was surprised to find that my license had expired on my birthday, as it was supposed to, except that my birthday had occurred several weeks earlier.

No problem, I figured. I'll just run out to the State Patrol station and get it renewed. But there was a problem, which I recognized as soon as I approached the station. Cars were lined up all around the station. Inside the station were more people and every chair was filled.

"How long do they say the wait is?" I asked one of the gentlemen.

"Two to three hours," he said.

Now, I am averse to waiting and that was longer than I could remember waiting to get a license in the combined years I'd had one.

"By the way," the gentleman advised," before you wait you'd better be sure to have all the documents on that list."

The list on the wall was a fairly lengthy number of items and an applicant needed to prove identity, place of residence and proof of citizenship, several of which I didn't have. I had my current license, with photo and vital stats. but that's no longer enough. Reconciled to the wait, I returned earlier in the morning a week later. There was still a crowd but the wait was only an hour and a half. You needed your birth certificate or passport, plus two utility bills with your name mailed to your place of residence.

When you were born as long ago as I was, it's not always easy finding a birth certificate, which is true for many older people. But my wife came up with mine plus the bills addressed to our residence.

This year, an applicant must also fill out a two-page form which includes some ambiguous questions on whether he or she plans to register to vote. Having registered to vote many years ago, I don't plan to register this year, so I checked "no," but I'm not sure that was the right answer.

I passed the eye test, got my picture taken, which looked 10 years older than my previous one, and waved on past the waiting crowd.

I live in a medium-size city (Athens), but I wonder how crowded the stations must be in urban centers and how long the wait is, not to mention how many people aren't aware of the documentation they need when they get to the station.

It was easier at the supermarket. But making it easy to vote has never been a priority in Southern states, or in the other states for that matter.

The new requirements are obviously intended to keep illegal immigrants from getting driver's licenses, which they also need to be voters. And that's another matter. But together with the longer waits and the questions, the result will be fewer votes by all Georgians, and maybe even fewer getting driver's licenses.

For years Southern states enacted laws to discourage black residents from voting. A popular tactic was the poll tax, which was not repealed until after World War II. Other barriers to voting were stuck down by the civil rights laws of the 1960s.

But while candidates spend millions of dollars on campaigning, efforts to increase the actual percentage of people voting are oddly missing. Georgia has recently allowed early voting, and even allows polls to open on one Saturday. But some states are actually reducing the number of hours to vote. The regular voting hours on Election Day were set in the 19th century, and polls close down with the sun, no matter how many voters are waiting in line.

Truth to tell, the Founding Fathers were not all that eager for everybody to vote. The Constitution gave the vote only to white males, stipulated that U.S. senators be elected by the state legislatures, not popular vote, and that the president would be selected by carefully approved electors from each state, not by vote of the people.

Georgia's total vote has been increasing in recent elections and its 2012 presidential total was 3.8 million, in line with totals in similar sized states such as Virginia and New Jersey, but lower than North Carolina, which has since taken steps to reduce its number of voters.

But getting back to the basic question: Should bona fide Georgia citizens of many generations be treated like second-class citizens to find a few who aren't citizens but want a driver's license -- which would help the state to identify them?

Millard Grimes, editor of the Columbus Ledger from 1961-69 and founder of the Phenix Citizen. is author of "The Last Linotype: The Story of Georgia and Its Newspapers Since World War II." A profile of Grimes can be found in the Georgia Encyclopedia, www.georgiaencyclopedia.org.

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