The U.S. Justice Department has set its sights on Georgia’s new voter restrictions, filing a lawsuit in June challenging a number of the state’s recent changes. And Georgia’s top elections official is not taking the challenge kindly.
Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s now-infamous secretary of state, is on a quest to find evidence that federal government lawyers colluded with voter advocacy groups—whether that evidence exists or not.
Raffensperger is using the Freedom of Information Act, a sunshine law commonly used by journalists to obtain government documents and expose otherwise secret activity, to seek communications between the DOJ and voting rights groups.
The Republican secretary of state told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that he wants to know if the DOJ is “bowing to pressure” from “liberal activist organizations” that had previously come out against the law, including the anti-discrimination Southern Poverty Law Center, Latino Community Fund Georgia, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the disability advocacy group ADAPT, the Georgia Muslim Voter Project, and several Black churches and clergy groups.
“We want to find out exactly: Are they listening to these outside organizations? Are they taking their orders from high command—which is actually Stacey Abrams and these liberal activist organizations,” he said. “Or are there actual liberal activists in the Department of Justice spinning these lawsuits out of whole cloth?”
These groups sued to block the state’s controversial SB 202 law in May, and the DOJ followed suit the very next month with a petition that claims the law “was enacted with the purpose of denying or abridging the right of Black Georgians to vote on account of their race or color.”
Raffensperger finds the united front against the law suspicious. His FOIA request letter, dated Aug. 31, demands “all communications” between the DOJ and 62 different nonprofits, lawyers, and activists. The last person named on that list is the person largely considered Raffensperger’s local archenemy: Abrams, a Democratic politician there who turned her failed run for governor into a voter registration blitzkrieg that defied odds and turned the red state blue.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Raffensperger declined to say what he’d consider a smoking gun to prove his collusion charges, but he said that when all the information comes out, “then you’ll have an open and transparent opportunity for the American public to see who’s running the DOJ and where this is all coming from.”
While Raffensperger’s FOIA requests may seem targeted at undermining the DOJ’s legal case, they also might have a political motivation. Raffensperger became a target for conservatives and then-President Donald Trump during the former president’s efforts to overturn the election, and already, the Republican secretary of state is drawing some familiar criticism from liberal voting rights groups.
“The list of organizations he’s targeting are full of Black and brown civil rights organizations, an Indigenous tribe, and Black churches. Accusations like these spikes death threats, and Brad knows this,” tweeted Hillary Holley, the organizing director for Fair Fight Action, the voter registration group Abrams started.
“He knows there are no witches,” said Marilyn R. Marks, the executive director at Coalition for Good Governance, one of the nonprofits mentioned in the FOIA. “We haven’t been to the DOJ. We don’t have any correspondence with the DOJ.”
Marks’ group is currently involved in two separate lawsuits against Raffensperger and his agency. One seeks to replace the state’s current voting machines, which its hired cybersecurity experts have warned are insecure and vulnerable to hackers, and the other petition is an attempt to stop SB 202, which Marks said unfairly restricts Georgians from publicly exposing problems with local elections.
“If we see election fraud or big mistakes or violations of law, Secretary Raffensperger’s SB 202 makes it a crime for us to report violations to law enforcement,” she said, warning that the law as written would also prevent journalists observing elections from publicly reporting any mishandling of ballots that they witness.
Raffensperger told The Daily Beast he isn’t sure what internal DOJ communications will reveal, but he hopes to better understand why Georgia is “being continually targeted” by the federal agency for laws that already exist in other states. For example, Minnesota requests identification to receive an absentee ballot, and New York prohibits handing out food and drinks to voters in line. Both measures were put in place with Georgia’s new law.
“The Department of Justice has taken the position that it’s OK for some states to do what they’re doing, but in Georgia you can’t do that. That’ s a patently ridiculous position,” he said. “Why are we held to a different standard?”
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was co-founded by civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., is also among the organizations listed by the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office. SCLC President Charles Steele Jr. told The Daily Beast that he has not been in communication with the Justice Department, but he said he supports its battle against what he called a “racist law against those who've been disenfranchised for many years.”
The most plain example, he said, is how the law reduces the number of absentee ballot drop boxes that were placed on government property under video surveillance—something that was originally a temporary measure of additional access provided to reduce voter exposure to coronavirus.
“People really like the availability of that. The drop-off boxes really give people who’ve been disenfranchised a good feeling that they don’t have to be judged or overly intimidated by going to a court-type environment to vote. I can just drive up as an American and drop it off in my ballot box in my district,” he said. “They’re trying to disenfranchise people… they’re trying to make it difficult.”
Steele said the current fight against state elections officials is merely the latest phase in the long-running battle over voting rights—one that was worsened when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. That’s when it allowed states with a history of discrimination against Blacks to change voter laws without first getting federal government approval.
“The state government has always been our enemy, and the federal government has always been our friend. Racism, segregation, Jim Crow. It’s always been the state government that fought us,” he said.
Raffensperger rejects any notion that the new law is “Jim Crow 2.0,” as Abrams has labeled it. And he compared her ongoing campaign against his policies to the incessant barrage of conspiracy theories spewed by Trump during the state’s presidential election recount last year.
“We’ve been fighting Stacey Abrams since 2018 and her voter suppression narrative. In 2020, we were fighting the narrative of voter fraud. In Georgia, it’s never been easier to register. It’s never been easier to vote.”