WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is suing Georgia over a spate of new voting restrictions Gov. Brian Kemp signed in March that impose voter ID requirements on absentee voting, make it illegal to give people water and food while they wait in line to vote, and limit remote drop box sites.
Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the lawsuit on Friday morning along with Kristen Clarke, the newly confirmed head of the Civil Rights Division. “The rights of all eligible citizens to vote are the central pillars of our democracy. They are the rights from which all other rights ultimately flow,” Garland said.
In addition to the lawsuit, which will accuse Georgia lawmakers of passing the new restrictions with the purpose of violating the rights of Black voters, Garland also announced new measures aimed at protecting election officials against threats; Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco issued a directive to federal prosecutors and the FBI on Friday highlighting these threats, making clear they would “promptly and vigorously” prosecute offenders and creating a new cross-department task force focused on the issue.
“Where we believe the civil rights of Americans have been violated, we will not hesitate to act,” Garland said.
Garland also announced a doubling of staff in the Civil Rights Division’s voting section focused on enforcement and described the Georgia case as the “first of many steps” the department was taking to protect voting rights. He said staff were analyzing restrictions passed in other states and keeping tabs on proposals pending before state legislatures.
The Georgia law, SB 202, was immediately denounced by voting rights activists and Democrats as a sweeping effort to suppress the vote of the state’s Black residents, describing it as “Jim Crow 2.0.” There are multiple lawsuits already pending challenging the provisions. Asked what the Justice Department’s case adds to that group, Clarke replied that after “carefully” studying the law, officials determined that there were “important federal interests to protect” — ensuring that all voters across the state have equal access to the ballot.
Kemp responded to Garland’s announcement in a series of tweets, accusing the Biden administration of “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.”
The announcement came on the eighth anniversary of a US Supreme Court decision that struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a key section that had required state and local governments with a history of civil rights violations — a list that included Georgia — to get approval from either the Justice Department or a federal court before making changes to their election practices.
Garland noted the significance of the Shelby County v. Holder anniversary in his remarks announcing the Georgia lawsuit, urging Congress to restore the “invaluable” preclearance tool and saying that it’s unlikely Georgia would have succeeded in adopting the voting restrictions now being challenged if they’d had to go through that process. According to Garland, the Justice Department had blocked Georgia from enforcing more than 175 proposed election laws while Section 5 was in effect.
Clarke accused state lawmakers in Georgia of passing SB 202 “through a rushed process that departed from normal practice and procedure.”
“These legislative actions occurred at a time when the Black population in Georgia continues to steadily increase, and after a historic election that saw record voter turnout across the state, particularly for absentee voting, which Black voters are now more likely to use than white voters,” Clarke said. “Our complaint challenges several provisions of SB 202 on the grounds that they were adopted with the intent to deny or abridge Black citizens equal access to the political process.”
The lawsuit challenges sections of the law that prohibit election officials from mailing out absentee ballot applications unsolicited; shortening the period of time for voters to request an absentee ballot and the deadline for those applications; impose fines on outside groups that send follow-up absentee ballot applications; and impose what Clarke described as “unnecessarily stringent” identification requirements to get an absentee ballot.
The suit also challenges provisions that would reduce the number of drop box sites for ballots. In the 2020 election and the 2021 runoff, there were more than 100 such sites in the metropolitan Atlanta area, but under the new law there would be roughly 20, she said.
By making it harder to vote absentee, Clarke said the law would force people to go in-person, and she cited studies that Black voters are more likely to face longer lines. The federal lawsuit challenges a part of the law that bans groups from distributing food and water to people waiting in line.
“These changes come immediately after successful absentee voting in the 2020 election cycle, especially among Black voters. SB 202 seeks to halt and reverse this progress,” Clarke said.
Finally, Clarke said the lawsuit will challenge a part of the law that would disqualify provisional ballots that voters cast at a location that isn’t their assigned precinct. Notably, the US Supreme Court is poised to decide a case soon about a similar law passed in Arizona, which was struck down in the lower courts as discriminatory.
Friday’s announcement was the latest instance of Garland appearing in person for the rollout of new legal action to signal the Biden administration’s renewed support for the department’s civil rights work; he previously made public statements on camera announcing investigations into police departments in Minneapolis and Louisville.
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