The U.S. Department of Justice sued Georgia Friday over its new elections overhaul law, marking the Biden Administration’s first salvo against the nation’s wave of voter suppression laws.
“Recent changes to Georgia’s election law 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,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said during Friday’s nationally-television news conference. “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 noted that the three-month-old law, known as the Election Integrity Act, was passed after Georgia “experienced record turnout and participation rates in the 2020 election cycle.” Two-thirds of eligible voters — or 5 million people — cast ballots in Georgia in the November election — surpassing the national average, Garland added.
The justice department’s lawsuit comes eight years to the day when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a major blow to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In a 5-4 ruling in 2013, the High Court effectively killed two key provisions that gave the federal government authority to monitor and approve changes to rules and processes involving elections and voting in nine southern states, including Georgia.
“Prior to that decision the Justice Department had an invaluable tool it could use to protect voters from discrimination,” Garland said. It was Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Over the years, the Justice Department used that particular provision of the act to prevent 175 proposed election laws across Georgia from being implemented, Garland said.
“If Georgia had still been covered by Section 5, it is likely SB 202 (the new law) would never have taken effect,” he added.
In addition to the lawsuit, Garland said the agency is making investigations of threats to undermine the voting process a priority. It also is monitoring other states that have enacted or are considering voter suppression laws.
Gov. Brian Kemp and the state’s elections czar blasted the Biden Administration for Friday’s action.
“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 tweeted. “This lawsuit is born out of the lies and misinformation that the Biden Administration has pushed against Georgia’s Election Integrity Act from the start. Joe Biden, [voting rights activist and former Gubernatorial candidate] Stacey Abrams and their allies tried to force an unconstitutional election power grab through Congress — and failed.”
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told Atlanta Civic Circle in a written statement: “The Biden Administration continues to do the bidding of Stacey Abrams and spreads more lies about Georgia’s election law. Their lies already cost Georgia $100 million and got the President awarded with four Pinocchios. It is no surprise that they would operationalize their lies with the full force of the federal government. I look forward to meeting them, and beating them, in court.”
Meanwhile, voting rights advocates praised the Justice Department’s decision.
“We very much welcome the lawsuit,” Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, told Atlanta Civic Circle. Young is the daughter of former Atlanta Mayor and U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young.
Two recent additions to the DOJ — Kristen Clark, assistant attorney general for civil rights and U.S. Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta — have tremendous experience in civil rights law, Young said.
The 2013 Supreme Court ruling, Young noted, prevents the ACLU of Georgia from being able to file a complaint with the Justice Department. Young is the daughter of former Atlanta Mayor and U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young.
Still, she said, “We are very pleased to see the Department of Justice stand up for democracy. The president, vice president and attorney general are keeping their promises to fight for voting rights for all Americans.”
The Georgia Legislative Black Caucus weighed in, saying it “fully supports the action taken by the U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to sue Georgia.”
Caucus Chair Sen. Tonya Anderson called the new law “a retaliatory, unwarranted response” to the record turnout during the 2020 election, despite the pandemic.
“We thank the Biden Administration and the Department of Justice for defending our Constitution and voting rights,” Anderson said in a prepared statement.
The Justice Department’s challenge now joins seven other pending lawsuits from various organizations and activist groups over the new law.
“We looked carefully at the Georgia law and determined that there’s an important federal interest to protect here, and that is ensuring that eligible voters across the state of Georgia enjoy equal access to the ballot, regardless of race,” Clark said Friday.
Clark detailed why the Justice Department is going after Georgia. The complaint alleges:
- The Georgia legislature passed SB 202 “through a rushed process that departed from normal practice and procedure.” The Senate version of the bill that passed on March 8 was three pages long. Days later, the bill grew to 90 pages in the House, which then held less than two hours of floor debate before Gov. Brian Kemp made it law the same day, Clark said.
- The new law reduces access to absentee voting, forcing many voters, especially Black voters, to vote in person. At which point they will be more likely than White voters to be subjected to long lines.
- The law prohibits election officials from distributing unsolicited applications for absentee ballots as they did in 2020.
- The law “Irrationally” shortens the time in which people can request absentee ballots. Data shows, Clark said, that Blacks are more likely to request absentee ballots than Whites.
- The new law cuts the number of ballot drop boxes. During last year’s election cycle, the four most populous metro Atlanta counties had more than 100 drop boxes. That number now is expected to fall to about 20, Clark said.
- Banning the distribution of food and drink to voters waiting in line is discriminatory, Clark said, noting that historically “minority voters in Georgia have been disproportionately more likely to wait in long lines to vote in-person Election Day.”
- The new law reduces the likelihood that out-of-precinct provisional ballots will be counted.
- “It’s well-documented that communities of color change residences more frequently than other populations,” Clark said. “And because of this greater residential mobility, polling site closures and consolidations, Black voters are more likely to end up at the wrong precinct on Election Day. SB 202 reduces the chances that those eligible voters will have their ballot counted.”
Clark further noted Georgia’s new law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 2 was gutted by the 2013 Supreme Court ruling.
“The attorney general has made it clear that the Justice Department will not stand idly by in the face of unlawful attempt to restrict access to the ballot,” Clark said. “Today’s filing demonstrates the commitment to this charge.”