The Justice Department announced on Friday that it is suing the state of Georgia over its new voting restrictions, marking the first step in the Biden administration’s plan to aggressively fight a wave of voter suppression bills passed in the wake of Trump’s election loss.
“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 in a press conference.
He said the lawsuit, U.S.A. v. The State of Georgia, is the first of “many efforts” to ensure every voter has access to the ballot box.
“The Civil Rights Division did not arrive at this decision lightly,” Kristen Clarke, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said on Friday, adding that several provisions of Georgia’s new legislation were made with a “discriminatory purpose in violation of the Voting Rights Act.”
Clarke said the legislation demonstrated what she called “intent to deny or abridge” Black citizens’ access to voting, and came as Georgia had made massive strides in voter turnout during the 2020 elections.
The Georgia bill, signed into law in March, hands greater control over election administration to the GOP-controlled state legislature and includes a bundle of provisions that create obstacles, particularly for absentee voting, like strict ID requirements, less time to request ballots and fewer drop boxes.
Clarke on Friday called the stricter ID requirements “unnecessarily stringent.” Among other changes, the law also makes it a crime for outside groups to provide food and water to voters waiting at polling stations.
In their complaint, the Justice Department alleges that the rushed legislation was passed against the backdrop of a “long-standing, well-documented, and judicially recognized” history of voting-related discrimination against Black voters.
It argues that the restrictive new legislation emerged amid demographic shifts in the state that led to rising numbers of Black voters and voters of color.
Black Georgians had made “unprecedented recent successes in electing candidates of choice,” and that followed a “dramatic increase” in Black Georgians making use of absentee voting last year, the complaint says.
According to the suit, Georgia signed its voting overhaul bill into law, knowing that it would impact Black voters disproportionately.
“Georgia enacted SB 202 with knowledge of the disproportionate effect that numerous provisions, both singly and together, would have on Black voters’ ability to participate in the political process on an equal basis with white voters,” the complaint says.
The lawsuit also mentions the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to invalidate a key provision that allowed the Justice Department to stop states from passing laws that would potentially contribute to voter discrimination, like the one Georgia passed this year.
Biden has called Georgia’s new legislation “Jim Crow in the 21st Century,’’ a characterization disputed by Gov. Brian Kemp.
Kemp responded to the lawsuit Friday by accusing the Biden administration of “weaponizing” the Justice Department.
“This lawsuit is born out of the lies and misinformation the Biden administration has pushed against Georgia’s Election Integrity Act from the start,” he wrote on Twitter.
“Joe Biden, Stacey Abrams, and their allies tried to force an unconstitutional elections power grab through Congress - and failed. As Secretary of State, I fought the Obama Justice Department twice to protect the security of our elections - and won. I look forward to going three for three to ensure it’s easy to vote and hard to cheat in Georgia.”
The Georgia lawsuit is the first major voting rights case filed under the Biden administration. It comes as Republicans angle to impose voting restrictions after former President Donald Trump waged a months-long campaign falsely alleging widespread voter fraud.
The Justice Department also announced its plans on Friday to launch a task force to address growing threats against elections officials, after attacks on local officials and Trump’s efforts to pressure Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to toss him a win in the state.
In a memo Friday, Garland’s deputy, Lisa Monaco, wrote that the department would “work tirelessly to protect all election workers—whether they be elected officials, appointed officials, or those who volunteer their time—against the threats they face.”
The task force is expected to include assistance from members of the Criminal Division, Civil Rights Division, the National Security Division and the FBI, according to the memo.
On Tuesday, Biden said he would speak out more aggressively on voting rights after Republicans filibustered a debate on S.1, the Democrats’ sweeping reform bill known as the “For the People Act.”
Earlier this month, Garland said his department would double the number of attorneys working on voter suppression issues, and would “not wait” to act as he urged Congress to pass Democrats’ elections legislation.
“We have not been blind to the dramatic increase in menacing and violent threats against all manner of state and local election workers, ranging from the highest administrators to volunteer poll workers,” he said during a June 11 policy speech at the department’s D.C. headquarters. “Such threats undermine our electoral process, and violate a myriad of federal laws.”
Florida and Iowa have also passed laws imposing new voting restrictions. Voting law overhauls are also under consideration in Texas, New Hampshire, Arizona, and Michigan, among other states.