State begins education effort for voter ID law

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia is launching a campaign to educate voters about a new photo ID mandate, an effort which could play a critical role in deciding whether the law passes constitutional muster with a federal judge.

Secretary of State Karen Handel announced last week that voters in the 22 counties having special elections will have to show photo IDs when they go to the polls on Sept. 18. She’s begun dipping into a $500,000 education budget to fund an intensive outreach effort to let voters know about the change.

In his ruling last year blocking the law, U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy was critical of the hurried effort state officials slapped together to inform voters about the new requirements.

But Murphy offered a tantalizing message to the law’s supporters: If the state takes the time to launch a meaningful education effort the law ‘‘might well survive a federal constitutional challenge.’’

State officials are pressing forward again to enforce the law after Georgia’s top court dismissed a separate state challenge. Murphy is scheduled to hear arguments in the voter ID case Aug. 22 in Rome, Ga.

‘‘The judge told us to educate, so that is what we are doing,’’ State Election Board member Randy Evans, a Republican lawyer, said.

Already the state has set up a Web site and a toll free number to contact about the new requirements. A letter was recently mailed to 74,000 registered voters in those counties who, records show, lack a Georgia driver’s license or non-driver photo ID.

Radio ads are set to hit the airwaves on Monday. And Handel has said she will appear at community forums to spread the word.

The effort is aimed at telling voters what IDs can be used to vote. If they lack an acceptable government-issued photo ID, it will direct them to a place where they can get one for free. It will also let them know about absentee ballots, where no photo ID is needed to cast a ballot.

Jennifer Owens, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Georgia, said the effort to reach voters was a positive development. But she questioned whether the roughly five weeks left until the September election was adequate time for it to be effective.

‘‘It’s a really extreme shortened time frame,’’ Owens said. In order to get one of the state-issued photo ID cards some residents might have to first obtain a birth certificate or other documentation, which could itself take time.

And if Murphy blocks the law again — as he has twice before — the spending would be wasted.

Georgia’s voter ID law has had a long trip through the courts and the Capitol. Murphy ruled that the first version of the law in 2005 amounted to an unconstitutional poll tax. The state Legislature amended the law in 2006 to make the IDs free to anyone who needs them. A separate state challenge wound its way up to the Georgia Supreme Court, which dismissed the case because they said the plaintiff did not prove she’d been harmed by the law so she could not challenge it. The state’s top court sidestepped the question of whether it was constitutional.

Supporters say the law is needed to protect against voter fraud. Opponents argue it will disenfranchise poor, elderly and minority voters who are less likely to have a photo ID. The 22 counties holding special elections in September are: Baldwin, Bibb, Brantley, Carroll, Charlton, Chattooga, Dawson, Douglas, Echols, Fulton, Lamar, Lowndes, Marion, Meriwether, Monroe, Newton, Sumter, Tift, Treutlen, Walton, Whitfield, Wilkinson.

For information on the requirements: www.gaphotoid.com. Toll Free Number: 1-877-725-9797