U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during an event at the Justice Department on June 15, 2021. Photo by 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.”
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.”
The DOJ lawsuit joins seven other federal suits filed by civil and voting rights organizations that claim new absentee ID requirements, limitations on absentee drop boxes and other changes violate the federal voting laws.
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.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp responded to the lawsuit’s announcement with a Twitter post blasting the filing as “born out of the lies and misinformation” promoted by the Biden administration.
“Now, they are weaponizing the U.S. Department of Justice to carry out their far-left agenda that undermines election integrity and empowers federal government overreach in our democracy,” Kemp posted.
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 due to the mandate for an extra weekend voting day and more public notice on polling location changes.
But Democrats and voting-rights groups have blasted the law, saying it will significantly disenfranchise many Georgians, predominantly minority voters, people with disabilities and seniors.
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.”
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 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.”
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