WASHINGTON – Justice Department is suing Georgia over new state electoral law, alleging Republican state lawmakers rushed into a major overhaul with the intention of denying black voters access equal to the ballot.
“Where we believe the civil rights of Americans have been violated, we will not hesitate to act,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said Friday, announcing the lawsuit.
Republican state lawmakers immediately backed down, pledging to vigorously defend Georgian law.
The Biden administration’s decision comes two weeks after Garland said his department would review new laws in Republican-controlled states that tighten voting rules. He said the federal government would take action if prosecutors saw illegal activity.
The lawsuit also comes as pressure increases on the Biden administration to respond to GOP-backed laws being pushed into the states this year. A Democratic effort to revise election laws was blocked this week by Republican senators.
As of mid-May, 22 restrictive laws had been passed in at least 14 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which studies voting and supports expanded access. Justice Department officials hinted prosecutors were reviewing other election laws across the United States and warned the government would not remain inactive if there were illegal attempts to restrict voter access .
The increased enforcement of voting rights laws also indicates that President Joe Biden and Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke are keeping their promise to refocus the department on civil rights after four tumultuous years under the Trump administration. Clarke was one of the country’s leading civil rights advocates before his appointment as head of the department’s civil rights division.
Georgian Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said he would challenge the lawsuit. The Republican official has come under heavy criticism from then-President Donald Trump and his allies for pushing back efforts to challenge the state’s vote result in the 2020 election. Raffensperger has broadly supported the new law and faces a main challenge from a Trump-backed congressman.
“The Biden administration has been spreading lies about Georgian electoral law for months,” Raffensperger said in a statement. “It is no surprise that they are operationalizing their lies with all the force of the federal government. I look forward to meeting them and defeating them in court.”
Gov. Brian Kemp, R-Ga., Called the Justice Department’s trial “completely legally and constitutionally flawed” and said the charges brought by prosecutors were baseless and “quite frankly, disgusting.”
“Today, Biden’s Justice Department launched a politically motivated attack on the rule of law and our democracy,” he told a press conference.
While most of the more controversial aspects of Georgia’s new electoral law were dropped before its adoption, it is notable for its reach and the newly extended powers granted to the state over local election offices.
The bill, known as SB 202, also adds a voter identification requirement for postal ballots, shortens the timeframe for requesting a mail-in ballot, and reduces the number of available ballot boxes. in Metro Atlanta – provisions that have challenged the federal government.
“The changes to the absentee vote were not made in a vacuum,” Clarke said. “These changes come immediately after the success of postal voting in the 2020 electoral cycle, especially among black voters. SB 202 seeks to stop and reverse this progress.”
The lawsuit also targets another controversial measure – a ban on the distribution of food and water by various groups and organizations to voters lining up to vote. Democrats say support is needed to encourage voters who find themselves in long lines. Republicans argue the measure is necessary to prevent illegal elections from happening at polling stations.
In 2020, only two states had identification requirements for voters requesting a postal ballot. Along with Georgia, Florida lawmakers also passed a law requiring additional identification for postal voting. Clarke described Georgian law as adding “new and unnecessarily strict” identification requirements to postal voting.
In Georgia, drop boxes were allowed last year under an emergency rule caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans across the state have defended the new law by making drop boxes a permanent option for voters and requiring all counties to have at least one. But critics say the new limits mean there will be fewer drop boxes available in the state’s most populous communities.
For the entire Atlanta metropolitan area, Democrats estimate the number of drop boxes will increase from 94 last year to a maximum of 23 for future elections based on the new one drop box formula. per 100,000 registered voters.
Clarke noted that the Atlanta metro area is home to the state’s largest black voting age population.
The NAACP and civil rights leaders such as Stacey Abrams applauded the administration’s move. NAACP Chairman Derrick Johnson said Georgian law was a “blatant attack on the most basic and sacred right of the American people, the right to vote.”
The law is already the subject of seven other federal lawsuits filed by civil rights and electoral integrity groups that raise a number of claims under the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in voting.
The Supreme Court is also assessing an Arizona voting rights dispute that precedes last year’s election, in which the court could once again significantly curtail the use of the voting rights law.
Eight years ago on Friday, the High Court removed the Justice Department’s most effective tool to tackle discriminatory election laws: the requirement that states with a history of racial discrimination, primarily in the South, obtain prior government or court approval for any change in vote. .
The department also announced on Friday that it was creating a task force and advising the FBI and U.S. lawyers to prioritize investigations into threats against election officials.