The US justice department is filing a major federal lawsuit challenging a new sweeping voting measure in Georgia that is widely seen as a blatant effort to make it harder for minorities to vote in the state.
The challenge is the first major voting rights case filed under the new Joe Biden administration and marks one of just a handful of suits the department has filed in recent years challenging voting laws on a statewide basis.
The lawsuit, filed under section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, alleges Georgia Republicans passed a sweeping measure with the intent to deny people access to the ballot box based on their race.
“Our complaint alleges that recent changes to Georgia’s election laws were enacted with the purpose of denying or abridging the right of Black Georgians to vote on account of their race or color in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act,” attorney general Merrick Garland said during a Friday press conference.
The move comes amid a wave of state laws passed by Republican-run legislatures across the US that are seen as attempts to suppress the vote of Democratic-leaning communities of color. It also comes after Republicans in the US Senate effectively torpedoed Democrat attempts to pass a new law defending voting rights.
Garland announced the suit on the eighth anniversary of the supreme court’s decision in Shelby County v Holder, a case that gutted a critical provision in the voting rights act and enabled states like Georgia to pass voting restrictions with much less federal oversight.
If that provision was still in effect, the Georgia law likely would not have been enacted, Garland said Friday.
The Georgia law, enacted in March, makes significant changes to several aspects of voting in the state.
The bill requires voters to provide identification information both when they request and absentee ballot and on the ballot itself. It also limits the use of absentee ballot drop boxes, allows for unlimited citizen challenges to voter qualifications and prohibits activists from handing out water to people standing in line to vote within 150ft of a polling place. It also creates a pathway for partisan officials to remove local election officials, a move experts have warned could lead to officials to reject valid election results.
The department’s lawsuit challenges several of those provisions, Kristen Clarke, the head of the DoJ’s civil rights division, said Friday. She noted that the new restrictions on absentee voting came after Black voters used mail-in voting, a process long utilized by white voters in the state, in record numbers.
Clarke singled out several provisions of the Georgia law the DoJ was zeroing in on, including measures that block election officials from sending out unsolicited ballot applications, limits on drop boxes, shortening the period to request and return an absentee ballot, the ban on assistance to voters in line, and a new restriction that throws out most provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct.
“The provisions we are challenging reduce access to absentee voting at each step of the process, pushing more Black voters to in person voting, where they will be more likely than white voters to confront long lines. SB 202 then pushes additional obstacles to casting an in person ballot,” she said.
Georgia governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, pledged to defend the law.
“They are weaponizing the US Department of Justice to carry out their far-left agenda that undermines election integrity and empowers federal government overreach in our democracy,” he tweeted.
Garland also announced Friday the DoJ was forming a taskforce to investigate threats against election workers. He also said Lisa Monaco, the deputy attorney general, had sent a memo to federal prosecutors instructing them to prioritize threats against election workers.
“The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, the right from which all other rights ultimately flow. For this vital right to be effective, election officials must be permitted to do their jobs free from improper partisan influence, physical threats, or any other conduct designed to intimidate,” the memo says.
LaTosha Brown, a co-founder of the group Black Voters Matter, praised DoJ’s intervention and said it reflected the work of having Vanita Gupta and Clarke, two longtime voting rights attorneys, now in top roles at the justice department.
“With DoJ getting involved, it elevates the conversation, it brings more firepower, and it sends a strong message to these states that this is not going to go without being answered.”