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Humbug Square - City to get license center

But black officials ask feds to reject voter ID law

?The nice policeman who gave me a ticket on North Highland Avenue for my expired tag the other day happened to ask if my driver’s license address was current.

“Oh, I just moved, officer,” I said, failing to mention that I’d “just moved” in February.

“Under Georgia law, you have 60 days to get a new license,” he said. He gave me a ticket for the tag, hopped on his motorcycle and returned to the corner of Ponce de Leon and North Highland, where cops are operating some sort of minor-violation trap these days. You can’t get past San Francisco Coffee before they’re on your ass with blue lights.

I mailed in my ad valorem taxes, with $27.43 in late penalties, and got a new tag sticker in the mail a week later. I also went to the Department of Motor Vehicle Safety’s website to change the address on my license. After you change the address online, they confirm your new address with the post office and then send the new license in the mail with your old picture. It’s like the picture of Dorian Gray: You never age.

The process was painless. But before I discovered I could handle it online, I looked at the DMVS website to see which of my trusty old driver’s license sites was handiest.

I used to go to the Kroger on Ponce. But the driver’s license operations at four metro Kroger stores were closed several years ago by mutual agreement. So, what about the license office on Memorial Drive, just a few blocks west of the Capitol? No. Closed.

The office on Moreland Avenue? Closed.

I scrolled down the list of driver’s license offices and was shocked to find that there’s not a single one left in the city of Atlanta. It seems impossible that the largest city in the state wouldn’t have a damn driver’s license office.

Then, I remembered we have a new law in Georgia that requires a photo ID to vote. And if you make it hard for some people — say, old or poor people who don’t have cars — to get to a driver’s license office, you can radically cut down on, say, Democratic voters.

I called Susan Sports, the public information officer for DMVS, who said last week the department had to close the physically deteriorating offices on Memorial Drive and Moreland Avenue, and hadn’t found a suitable place to put a new full-service testing center in the city. She pointed out that there are centers outside the city in Forest Park, Lithonia, Norcross, Sandy Springs and south DeKalb. She noted that the facility at South DeKalb Mall is accessible by MARTA.

After I talked with Sports, I called Dan McLagan, Gov. Sonny Perdue’s spokesman, who said he wasn’t aware that Atlanta didn’t have a driver’s license office and that he would call DMVS to check into it. Voila! By Tuesday, Sports was back on the phone saying the department had found a location for a convenient new driver’s license center in downtown Atlanta near Turner Field. The facility will be built on a fast track on a vacant lot at Fulton Street and Capitol Avenue, just off I-20, she said. Perdue is expected to talk to the media about it Friday.

The new license center in Atlanta may mute criticism from legislators such as state Sen. Kasim Reed, D-Atlanta, who has said the lack of such a facility would reduce urban votes. But it won’t dampen concerns that the elderly, the poor and other non-drivers, especially in rural areas, are being disenfranchised.

DMVS is undergoing a huge shake-up under Perdue, who wanted to put an end to Georgia’s notorious four-hour waits at driver’s license offices. The department itself goes away July 1, spinning off some of its operations to other departments and leaving a streamlined Department of Driver Services.?DMVS now mails renewal notices to drivers who can handle the transaction online or by phone or mail. Over the past three years, more than 1.3 million drivers have renewed without going into the office.

Yet people still have to go into an office every other renewal or to get a first license or state ID. Anyone 64 or older has to go in for an eye test.?As part of the restructuring, DMVS closed a number of offices statewide in favor of adding full-service centers. The department used to have 40 full-service centers and 26 renew-only sites. Now, it has 53 full-service sites, three part-time sites and no renew-only sites for 159 counties in the largest state east of the Mississippi.

It’s rather convenient for Perdue that the license-office closings came while the state is implementing a new Republican-driven law reducing the acceptable forms of ID for voters from 17 to five.?State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, argues that the bill was intended to keep poor, elderly people in rural areas from voting.

“It’s crazy,” says Brooks. “This is a real slick, under-the-radar movement being conducted by the National Republican Party wherever the Republicans control the general assembly and the governor’s office. It will impact the elderly, minorities, students. It is really designed to suppress the vote that would go to Democratic candidates.

“Karl Rove, Ralph Reed and those boys are sitting around developing schemes to enhance the Republican turnout and give Republicans a boost at the same time they’re undercutting the strength of Democrats.”

The governor’s office insists that closing driver’s license offices had nothing to do with the voter ID bill.

“The goal here is to get locations where there need to be locations and to simplify the process as much as possible for folks,” McLagan said. The state’s goal “is to make it easy for everyone to get a driver’s license and an ID.” As for the charge of undercutting the Democratic vote, he says, “It’s a ridiculous allegation.”

Democrats, however, argue that the effect is precisely what Republicans intended when they passed the voter ID bill earlier this year.

The law “will seriously impair the ability of many, many citizens in this state to vote, particularly the elderly who don’t have the ID and live in the 100 Georgia counties [without driver’s license centers] and cannot go to an office and get one of these types of ID,” says Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who’s seeking the Democratic nomination for governor next year.

“This will make Georgia the most restrictive in the nation in terms of ID requirement for no apparent reason,” Cox said. “In the almost 10 years I have been working in the Secretary of State’s Office, we have had not one single complaint of a voter trying to impersonate some other voter. The notion that this is designed to stamp out rampant fraud is ridiculous. For rural voters, this will work as a tremendous hardship.”

The Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials adopted a resolution last weekend urging the U.S. Justice Department to reject the voter ID law. The department must review it because Georgia is still under the 1965 Voting Rights Act. If the Bush Justice Department doesn’t reject the law, the next step for opponents would be to take the case to court.

And what’s at stake? Meg Smothers, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Georgia, says an estimated 152,664 individuals over the age of 60 who voted in the 2004 presidential election in Georgia do not have a driver’s license and are not likely to have other photo ID.?To put that into perspective: The 2002 gubernatorial race was decided by 104,615 votes. ?The Department of Driver Services Web page will go online July 1 at <a href = http://www.dds.ga.gov">www.dds.ga.gov You can contact Senior Editor Doug Monroe at <a href = mailto:"doug.monroe@creativeloafing.com">doug.monroe@creativeloafing.com