The Justice Department is suing the state of Georgia over its voting law, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Civil Rights division chief Kristen Clarke announced Friday, arguing that the state is violating federal law by inhibiting voting rights on the basis of race.
"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," Garland said Friday at the Justice Department.
Garland, flanked by other department leaders, including Clarke, Deputy Attorney General Monaco, and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, told reporters that the 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."
Georgia's, signed by GOP Governor Brian Kemp in March, outraged Democrats and voting rights groups with voter ID provisions and changes to mail-in voting that they say will make it more difficult for minorities and poorer voters to cast their ballots. While it adds new restrictions to absentee voting, the law also expands early voting opportunities, formalizing provisions that accommodated voters during the pandemic. It also codifies the use of drop boxes with strict rules on how they can be used and sets new rules for state and local election officials.
Kemp responded to the announcement via Twitter, saying, "This lawsuit is born out of the lies and misinformation the Biden administration has pushed against Georgia's Election Integrity Act from the start. Joe Biden, Stacey Abrams, and their allies tried to force an unconstitutional elections power grab through Congress - and failed."
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger responded similarly, adding, "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."
In tandem with the announcement, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco issued a new memo Friday, directing the FBI and federal prosecutors across the country to identify, investigate and prosecute threats against election officials and poll workers, and announced the creation of a task force to address the spike in threats.
"A threat to any election official, worker, or volunteer is, at bottom, a threat to democracy," Monaco said in the memo. "We will promptly and vigorously prosecute offenders to protect the rights of American voters, to punish those who engage in this criminal behavior, and to send the unmistakable message that such conduct will not be tolerated."
"Several studies show that Georgia experienced record voter turnout and participation rates in the 2020 election cycle. Approximately two-thirds of eligible voters in the state cast a ballot in the November election, just over the national average. This is cause for celebration," Garland said. "But then in March of 2021, Georgia's legislature passed SB 202. Many of that law's provisions make it harder for people to vote."
"Laws adopted with a racially motivated purpose, like Georgia Senate Bill 202, simply have no place in democracy today," Clarke said. She highlighted the prohibition on groups that are no longer allowed to hand out food and water to voters in order to make their wait in long lines at polling places more comfortable on election day. Clarke called that particular ban "needless" and alleged it proved "unlawful discriminatory intent."
Garland's announcement was expected, even if its timing was not. Two weeks ago, he delivered a speech promising toin response to the weakening of the federal Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in 2013. He said then that the department would confront state and local efforts that "will make it harder to vote," and examine election laws "to determine whether they discriminate against Black voters and other voters of color."
On Friday, Garland called on Congress to enact legislation, which the House is currently working on with the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, or H.R. 4, although it has yet to be introduced. The bill would restore Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a key provision that was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.
The Voting Rights Act established a formula to determine which areas should be covered by Section 5, which required jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to submit any changes to voting laws to the Justice Department or a panel of federal judges for approval, a practice known as preclearance. But the Supreme Court struck down the formula in Shelby County v. Holder, exactly eight years ago, in a 5 to 4 decision along ideological lines.
On Friday, Garland called Section 5 an "invaluable tool," and said that if it were still in place, it could have prevented the passage of SB 202. "Using that tool, the department prevented over 175 proposed election laws across Georgia from being implemented because they failed the statutory test. If Georgia had still been covered by Section 5, it is likely that SB 202 would never have taken effect."
The federal lawsuit filed in the Northern District of Georgia is now one of several others petitioning the courts for relief after the bill's passage.
Georgia isn't the only big battleground state pushing voting changes. Three Republican-led states, Arizona, Florida and Texas are the next frontier for election law changes -- their legislatures are considering proposals to add ID requirements, restrictions on dropboxes, and make cuts to private funding for local election offices.
"Where we believe the civil rights of Americans have been violated, we will not hesitate to act," Garland said.
Adam Brewster and Caitlin Huey-Burns contributed.