ATLANTA — Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue signed into law Friday a bill requiring voters to show government-issued photo identification, an issue so emotional for black legislators that they staged a walkout from the Capitol this spring.
The move would give Georgia one of the strictest voter identification laws in the nation. Support for it has split along party lines: Though Republicans say the law will protect against voter fraud, Democrats say it could prevent as much as 3% of the population from voting -- especially poor, black and elderly Georgians, because they are less likely to have photo identification.
The law now will go before the U.S. Department of Justice, which must review and approve it under the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 because Georgia has a history of vote suppression.
In March, leaders of the state Legislative Black Caucus compared the restrictions to Jim Crow-era methods of disfranchisement, like the poll tax or the literacy test.
"It's announcing that the state is designed to look more like 1954 than 2005," said state Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, a Democrat from Macon. "It cuts to the core of the progress we're making in Georgia."
Five states -- Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, South Carolina and South Dakota -- require photo identification from voters, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Georgia was among 15 states that accepted other forms of identification such as bank statements, Social Security cards and utility bills.
The new law reduces acceptable forms of identification from 17 to the six that include a photo, most commonly the driver's license and passport. Georgians who do not have these forms can obtain free state ID cards at certain government offices or vote by absentee ballot, Republicans have said. Voters can also submit provisional ballots and return within 48 hours with an acceptable form of ID.
The measure loosens restrictions on absentee ballots by dropping a requirement that voters explain their need to vote absentee.
The voter ID initiative sparked the most tumultuous debate of this year's legislative session. During debate on the topic, several black elected officials sang protest songs, wept and wrapped themselves in shackles; many Republicans responded with puzzlement at their colleagues' reactions.
Perdue told reporters Friday that he did not see the voter identification legislation as a racially charged issue, and nothing in the measure "excludes anyone in the state of Georgia from voting."
"I'm not sure why this issue has taken on such emotion from certain sectors," he told a reporter from the television station WXIA. "What we're trying to do is make sure that everyone who is eligible to vote has the opportunity to vote and those who would defraud all of us citizens in our elections not have the opportunity to do so."
Brown, the Senate Democratic leader, called the requirement onerous, particularly for people in rural areas who might not have a way of getting to government offices to request an ID card. For decades, he said, rural Georgians have voted under more relaxed circumstances.
"The people who work at the polls, they know everybody there," Brown said.
The American Civil Liberties Union is expected to challenge the law.
Similar bills have passed in legislatures in Arizona, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin this year. Wisconsin's Democratic governor, James Doyle, vetoed the measure this year and vowed to veto it again if necessary, saying it would disenfranchise poor voters. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, has said he would probably sign it. A similar bill in California never came to a vote.
Daniel Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University who focuses on voting rights, said the measures would affect the 6% to 10% of the U.S. population that did not have photo ID.
"There's no evidence that this is going to reduce fraud at all," Tokaji said. "What we're seeing now are two parties fighting over every vote."