U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during an event at the Justice Department on June 15, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Garland addressed domestic terrorism during his remarks. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Friday that the Department of Justice is suing the state of Georgia to overturn a sweeping elections law passed in March, with a legal challenge that alleges the new statute violates the federal Voting Rights Act.
The federal lawsuit is the latest in a series of challenges to Senate Bill 202, which would, among other changes, limit absentee voting, enact new voter ID requirements and make it illegal for volunteers to hand out food and water to those waiting in long lines to cast their ballots.
“Many of that law’s provisions make it harder for people to vote,” Garland said during a news conference Friday.
“The complaint alleges that the state enacted those restrictions with the purpose of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.”
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The legal action follows an announcement earlier this month that the DOJ was doubling its enforcement attorneys who work to protect voting rights, with Garland pledging that the agency would be “scrutinizing new laws that seek to curb voter access.”
Top Georgia Republican officials sharply countered the DOJ’s claims of racial discrimination in the suit and promised a stiff defense against a lawsuit they say is built on “lies.”
Gov. Brian Kemp responded to the lawsuit’s announcement blasting the filing as “born out of the lies and misinformation” promoted by President Joe Biden’s administration. Kemp said the filing of the lawsuit is a response to congressional Democrats failing to pass their own overarching federal voting legislation.
“Let me be clear, the DOJ lawsuit announced today is legally and constitutionally wrong,” Kemp said during a Friday afternoon press conference in Savannah, Georgia. “Their false and baseless accusations are quite honestly disgusting, but I can’t say that I’m surprised. The president and his administration. Stacey Abrams and their far left allies have lied about the Election Integrity Act from the beginning.”
Republican supporters of Georgia’s election overhaul argue that the legislation improves the security of the absentee voting system, and that some Georgians would have more voting options from a mandated extra weekend voting day and more public notice on polling location changes.
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr will lead the defense in the case that lists the state of Georgia, the State Election Board and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger as defendants. The Republican Carr referred to the lawsuit as a political stunt.
“The Justice Department is wrong, factually, legally and constitutionally,” Carr said in a statement. “Georgia’s law clearly strengthens security, expands access and improves transparency in our elections. It is disappointing for those of us who respect the rule of law, because this is not a lawsuit, it is a political campaign flier.”
Democrats and voting-rights groups have blasted the law, saying it will significantly disenfranchise many Georgians, predominantly minority voters, people with disabilities and seniors.
The federal lawsuit filed in the Northern District of Georgia joins seven other federal suits brought by civil and voting rights organizations that claim Georgia’s new absentee ID requirements, limitations on absentee drop boxes and other changes violate the federal voting laws.
Atlanta voting rights attorney Bryan Sells said it’s a big deal to have the Justice Department fighting against major sections of Georgia’s voting law.
The lawsuit specifically targets Section Two of the Voting Rights Act, which in federal court cases over the last handful of years have focused on whether minority voters were disenfranchised by rules on absentee voting, provisional ballots and more.
The department’s lawsuit won’t have an immediate affect on provisions of the SB-202 that have already become law or will on July 1, Sells said.
“There’s no way to predict how DOJ’s involvement could affect the timing of the case,” Sells said. “It could slow things down or speed things up. But all of the suits, if they become consolidated, are likely to move at roughly the same speed.”
Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for civil rights at the DOJ, outlined a number of provisions within the Georgia law that the DOJ complaint alleges were adopted with the intent of denying voting access to Black voters.
Those include changes that limit access to absentee voting — such as fewer drop boxes and a shortened timeline for requesting ballots — which Clarke said will push more Black voters to cast their ballots in person, “where they will be more likely than white voters to confront long lines.
Other changes in the statute will reduce the likelihood that voters who show up at the wrong precinct will have their ballots counted, also disproportionately affecting Black voters, she said.
Clarke said the new lawsuit is a signal that the DOJ “stands ready to protect the constitutionally guaranteed voting rights of Americans in Georgia, and wherever else those rights may be threatened in our country.”
Republican-controlled legislatures in 17 states have passed 28 new laws that advocates and Democrats say would make voting more difficult, particularly for people of color, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute. That includes Georgia and Florida.
Georgia is far from the only state that has enacted more voting restrictions since the 2020 election. Republican-controlled legislatures in 17 states have passed 28 new laws that advocates and Democrats say would make voting more difficult, particularly for people of color, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute. That includes Georgia and Florida.
Congressional Democrats also have held a host of hearings in the House and Senate on voting rights, and have listened to concerns about those Republican-led efforts to introduce and pass voting restrictions.
Garland declined to reveal Friday if the department intends to file lawsuits over newly passed voting laws in other states, saying that the DOJ is analyzing other state laws and following other proposals under consideration by state legislatures.
“This lawsuit is the first of many steps we are taking to ensure that all eligible voters can cast a vote, that all lawful votes are counted, and that every voter has access to accurate information,” Garland said.
Garland repeated his call for Congress to restore a preclearance requirement that states with historical practices of racial discrimination get federal approval before making any changes to their voting laws. That mandate was struck down in a 2013 Supreme Court decision.
Garland added that if that section of the federal Voting Rights Act was still in place, “it is likely that SB-202 would never have taken effect.”
In late March, Georgia Republicans followed through on their pledge ahead of the legislative session to come up with new voting legislation to restore confidence in what they said is a broken election system that caused supporters of former President Donald Trump to cast doubt about the 2020 election results.
The bill faced stiff resistance from Democratic lawmakers and numerous voting rights groups and on Friday the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus welcomed Garland suing Georgia for passing SB-202.
“As we have stated on countless occasions, this bill was a retaliatory, unwarranted response to a 2020 presidential election where African American and other communities of concern went to the polls in record numbers,” Georgia Legislative Black Caucus Chair Sen. Tonya Anderson said.
State House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, hailed Georgia’s SB-202 for making “voting more accessible and secure” while Raffensperger also blamed Abrams and Biden for spreading misinformation.
Raffensperger has repeatedly defended the new election law even though it removes the secretary of state as a voting member of the State Election Board.
But he’s supported other aspects, including requiring an ID to cast an absentee ballot and mandating drop boxes in every county.
“It is no surprise that they would operationalize their lies with the full force of the federal government,” Raffensperger said about the new lawsuit. “I look forward to meeting them, and beating them, in court.”
On the other end of the spectrum, organizations like the ACLU of Georgia and the Abrams-led Fair Fight lauded the Justice Department’s challenging Georgia’s voting law.
Federal prosecutors will provide strong resources for the battle against Georgia’s new law, said Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia.
“The Justice Department now has leaders with tremendous experience in civil rights enforcement, and we are very pleased to have them enter the fray on the side of our democracy.” she said.
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