On a cold, clear winter morning, a red-and-white school bus negotiated the winding road into this city of 6,700, tucked in the hills along the Tennessee border.
Kenneth Sherman pulled into a parking lot across from the county courthouse and prepared for another long, slow day.
Sherman’s bus has been crisscrossing Georgia for four months as part of a state initiative to supply photo identification cards to people who do not have any. The journey has amazed him, he said, with the hints of an old-fashioned life that still exists outside the vortex of Atlanta.
He routinely meets people who have never needed to show a card to prove their identity and, in some cases, never received so much as a birth certificate. Occasionally, he will ask for a birth certificate and the client will give the name of a midwife.
“I’m awed by it,” said Sherman, an examiner with the Department of Driver Services. “You’re 60 years old -- you’ve never done some of the simplest things we take for granted. You’ve never been on a plane.”
No one knows how many adult Georgians do not have government-issued photo identification, and this year few questions are more politically loaded.
ID cards became the subject of passionate debate when the Legislature passed a Republican-sponsored law requiring all voters to show an official photo, such as a passport or driver’s license. Previous Georgia law required that a voter show one of 17 different forms of ID, including utility bills and Social Security cards.
Civil rights organizations and Democratic leaders protested, arguing that as many as 153,000 Georgians -- many of them poor, elderly or African American -- would lose the right to vote. In Georgia’s 159 counties, there are 54 offices that can grant a driver’s license.
The bus program, known as Georgia Licensing on Wheels, or GLOW, was Gov. Sonny Perdue’s answer to the problem. The state will provide free driver’s license renewals and non-driver’s ID cards to people willing to swear they are indigent.
From the first, Republicans have maintained that there are virtually no eligible voters who do not already have some sort of ID. They are pointing to the low turnout for the mobile licensing program -- only 508 takers after visits to 49 counties -- as proof.
“It doesn’t appear there’s a need,” said Heather Hendrick, a spokeswoman for the Republican governor. “The critics of the legislation suggested there were a vast number of people wanting to vote without ID. There’s not.”
The law has been in limbo since late October, when U.S. District Judge Harold L. Murphy issued a preliminary injunction, comparing it to the poll taxes that were used to keep blacks from voting in the segregated South. A panel from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the injunction.
The case is set to return to the spotlight in January, when legislative sponsors are expected to put forward alternatives to the original bill. Murphy also will hear a lawsuit against the bill brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations.
Inside the bus, which is outfitted with oatmeal-colored carpet and a vinyl bench, Sherman and his colleague, examiner Jacquelyne Howell, spend much of the day waiting. The bus has the capability of providing as many as 200 cards a day, but most days fewer than 10 people come by. In their downtime, Sherman and Howell clean the bus and service the engine when needed.
And they wait.
When Erwin Duncan, 61, comes in to apply for an indigent ID card at 2 p.m. -- their second customer of the day -- they ask him if he’s ever had a driver’s license. He says he hasn’t carried one for 10 years. Duncan, a disabled former construction worker, quickly added that he didn’t need one because “everyone knows me around here.” In fact, he said, the only reason he’s here is because he needs an ID to get a fishing license. Voting will not be a problem, he said; he hasn’t voted in 20 years.
Politicians, he said, are “going to do what they want to do anyway,” he said. “Don’t matter who gets in.” Duncan is their last customer. At 3 p.m., the bus leaves Walker County.
Critics of the voter ID law are dismissive of the bus program, which they say cannot possibly meet the needs of indigent people in 159 counties. Murphy noted in his injunction that the bus is not handicapped-accessible and that its schedule is not widely publicized.
“The GLOW bus is just a PR gimmick,” said Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “The notion that one broken-down bus is going to service all these folks isn’t rational.”
Indeed, the bus’ four months on the road have done little to answer the question: How many adults in Georgia have no form of photo ID?
Lawyers contesting the law have cited the number 153,000 -- but that estimate is based on the number of people who voted in the 2004 presidential election without a photo ID. They also cited the 231,403 households in the state without access to a vehicle, and the 147,167 with no telephone service.
Many Georgians, however, expressed skepticism.
“How does a person get along these days without a picture ID of some sort to cash checks, turn on utilities, drive a car or enroll their children in school?” Larry Watson of LeGrange, Ga., wrote in a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In constructing their case, ACLU lawyers gathered a group of plaintiffs that included elderly people who did not have birth certificates, had never learned to drive, were too frail to stand in line at a licensing center, had allowed their licenses to lapse because they no longer used them, or had encountered bureaucratic obstacles.
But finding those people was not easy, said Neil Bradley, the Voting Rights Project’s associate director. One dropped out of the case when he was asked to give a deposition.
“How do you find them? They don’t have telephones,” Bradley said. “These are people who live at that edge of society, where they pay their rent in cash or they pay 20% to get their check cashed.”
Election workers in rural counties said the voters who might be tripped up by the new law were elderly -- shut-ins, widows and handicapped people. Mary Jane Young, 66, a Clinch County election worker, said plenty of older people have no birth certificates.
An older generation of women, like her own mother, had no need of a driver’s license because they never learned to drive, Young said. Wayne Williams, chief of voter registration in Bacon County, said the same was true of his mother.
“It didn’t have no effect on her,” said Williams, who is 70. “Wherever she wanted to go, Daddy would see that she got there.”