New, from the I-hate-government crowd: mandatory voter ID!

The last time fiscal and moral folly merged so shamelessly with political opportunism, we invaded Iraq.

The primary question in my mind, as I ponder the latest assault on rationality to emanate from our GOP-controlled Congress (how much longer, Lord?), is to what extent these radicals believe they're doing the right thing - as they set about methodically circumventing the principles that define who we are as a nation - and to what extent they're just cynically serving their short-term interests. Or has that line simply vanished?

HR 4844, which passed the House along party lines last week, is, unfortunately, more than just sputter and bluster about the peril of illegal aliens invading our voting booths, i.e., another piece of fantasy legislation to "protect" Americans from one more right-wing bugbear, like smoldering flags and gay wedding cakes.

This bill, which would require would-be voters to show expensive proof-of-citizenship identification before they could cast a ballot in the 2008 election, is straight-on vote suppression - addressing not the minuscule problem of non-citizens trying to vote, but the far larger one of low-income American citizens trying to vote, and voting their interests, which means, for the most part, voting Democratic.

"If this bill passed the Senate and became law, the electorate would likely become more middle-aged, whiter and richer - and, its sponsors are anticipating, more Republican," the New York Times editorialized last week with welcome zeal (signaling, let us pray, the Gray Lady's awakened interest in the integrity of U.S. elections).

The bill, as critics have vehemently charged, is a de facto, latter-day poll tax, requiring people to obtain costly documentation to prove their citizenship. A passport, for instance (which only 25 percent of Americans possess), costs $97. The cost of the photo ID could be even more onerous. "This is a mandate on all citizens to actually have to pay to vote," according to Tanya Clay House of People for the American Way. And as such, it is blatantly unconstitutional.

Indeed, the day before the House vote, a Georgia law requiring would-be voters to show a government-issued photo ID was struck down by Superior Court Judge T. Jackson Bedford Jr., whose words of rebuke were echoing in the House chamber 24 hours later (and quoted by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi).

"This cannot be," he said.

Judge Bedford's anger and incredulity still reverberate. The Republicans are rolling back the civil rights movement.

And it gets worse. In order to do this, they'd be requiring every state to tangle its citizens in a new, enormously expensive bureaucracy, the cost of which would be borne primarily by destitute state governments.

An estimate of how much this unnecessary measure would cost to implement can be found in a recently released report (based on a survey conducted by the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators) examining the true cost of a national identity card, a.k.a. Real ID. This is a similarly ill-conceived GOP concoction passed into law last spring as part of a military spending bill.

The cost for states to reissue identification documents to all 245 million current driver's-license and state-ID holders within five years, the study found, would be $11 billion. Congress has set aside $40 million, according to a recent story in the Salt Lake Tribune.

"We need to do the things that cut down on real fraud, not disenfranchise millions of American citizens," said Jonah Goldman of Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. "This law is designed to prevent certain citizens - not non-citizens - from voting. There's no logical conclusion you can come to other than that (the bill's supporters are) fostering hysteria that needs this solution."

The mechanism of democracy is breaking down before our very eyes. The problems already in place - most egregiously, our national electronic voting debacle, which is mind-boggling in its costs, malfunctions and fraud potential - need our urgent attention. So it's enormously frustrating to have to expend energy desperately heading off greater damage, but I see little choice.

The anti-democratic forces we're up against are part cynical calculation and part deep-seated fear of the unknown. The Voter ID bill demonstrates the seamlessness with which these elements are conjoined. The bill is part of a package of fear-based legislation - including the construction of 700 miles of double-layered fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border - aimed at sealing the country off from the rest of the world, as though what we have to give the world is in short supply.

Those of us who believe that the ideals we embody are not in short supply must make sure the Senate hears us as we echo Judge Bedford's rebuke of Georgia's unfair, vote-suppressing law: This cannot be.

Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at © 2006 Tribune Media Services, Inc.