Justice Department sues Georgia over new voting law

‘We will not hesitate to act’

The U.S. Justice Department sued Georgia on Friday over a new election law that includes restrictions on voting, setting up a legal showdown over Republican-led changes that President Joe Biden and other Democrats cast as disproportionately harmful to Black voters.

The challenge seeks to overturn portions of Senate Bill 202, the 98-page rewrite of election rules that imposes new voter identification requirements, limits the use of ballot drop boxes, shifts early voting days and gives the Republican-controlled Legislature more oversight in elections.

It’s the first major voting rights case brought by the Justice Department under the Biden administration, and it comes days after the U.S. Senate failed to advance a measure that would have blunted the impact of changes in Georgia and other states that adopted ballot restrictions after the 2020 election.

The complaint is the eighth lawsuit overall that seeks to overturn the law, though the federal government can devote far more resources than the various voting rights groups that brought previous challenges. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland framed the court challenge as a way to meet promises to aggressively protect voting rights.

“Where we believe the civil rights of Americans have been violated,” Garland said, “we will not hesitate to act.”

Georgia Republicans vowed to defend the law, which they promoted as a way to enhance confidence in the election system. Gov. Brian Kemp and other state GOP leaders dismissed the lawsuit as an attempt to rile up Democratic voters ahead of next year’s elections.

“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,” said Kemp, who signed the state law on the same day it passed the Legislature.

A partisan clash

Fueled by record turnout from Black voters, Georgia voted Democratic for president in November for the first time since 1992. Two months later, Democrats won both U.S. Senate seats in January runoffs, flipping control of the chamber.

Georgia quickly became the epicenter of then-President Donald Trump’s attempts to reverse his election defeat. He badgered Kemp and other GOP leaders, calling on them to invalidate Biden’s narrow victory, which was confirmed by three separate tallies.

When lawmakers returned to Atlanta in January, the GOP-controlled Legislature passed SB 202 on a party-line vote, egged on by Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud.

Recounts and audits confirmed Biden’s victory. A slew of lawsuits that sought to overturn the results went nowhere, and election experts called the allegations of fraud “wildly unreliable” and “worthless.”

While investigators are still probing more than 100 complaints from November, they would not change the election result even if every allegation is substantiated.

But GOP leaders, even those who defended the veracity of Georgia’s results, said they pushed for the changes in SB 202 as a prudent response to concerns about election security, and that Georgia remains an easier place to vote than many states controlled by Democrats.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger pinned the blame for a federal lawsuit challenging Georgia's new election law on voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams. “I look forward to meeting them, and beating them, in court,” Raffensperger said. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, vilified by Trump for refusing his call to invalidate Biden’s win, pinned the blame for the lawsuit on voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who is expected to seek a rematch with Kemp in next year’s race for governor. Kemp narrowly bested Abrams in 2018.

“I look forward to meeting them, and beating them, in court,” Raffensperger said.

SB 202′s critics say it’s based on Trump’s “big lie” of election fraud and a deliberate attempt to suppress the turnout of Black voters, some of the most loyal supporters of Democratic candidates.

“The Department of Justice stepping in today is a big step in this whole process of making sure that everyone’s right to vote is safe and secure and that you have access no matter where you live,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, who also serves as chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

Democrats also noted that Friday’s lawsuit announcement fell on the eight anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision that gutted a part of the federal Voting Rights Act, Section 5, that required Georgia and some other states with histories of voter suppression to get federal approval before changing their voting laws.

“If Georgia had still been covered by Section 5, it is likely that SB 202 would never have taken effect,” Garland said.

‘Will not stand idly by’

The legal challenge urges a federal judge to strike down the law as a violation of the Voting Rights Act by listing ways that federal authorities say make it harder for Black voters in Georgia to cast their ballots.

It objects to provisions that restrict third-party groups from sending out absentee ballot applications, ban outside organizations from handing out food and water to voters in line, limit the use of ballot drop boxes and outline new absentee ballot deadlines.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke also criticized “new and unnecessarily stringent identification requirements to obtain an absentee ballot” and provisions that disqualify provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct.

“The Justice Department will not stand idly by in the face of unlawful attempts to restrict access to the ballot,” Clarke said. “Today’s filing demonstrates our commitment to this cause.”

While speaking Friday about a federal legal challenge to Georgia's new election law, Senate Bill 202, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke focused on “new and unnecessarily stringent identification requirements to obtain an absentee ballot.” “The Justice Department will not stand idly by in the face of unlawful attempts to restrict access to the ballot,” Clarke said. “Today’s filing demonstrates our commitment to this cause.” (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found the ID requirements will disproportionately affect Black voters, who are much less likely than white voters to have ID numbers matched to their voter registration. Of the more than 272,000 registered voters who would have to submit additional documents to vote by mail under the new law, 56% of them are Black even though they make up only about 33% of the state’s population.

The 46-page lawsuit drew a direct line from Trump’s efforts to overturn Georgia’s election to the legislative push to pass the election law, knocking the special committee set up to handle the proposals.

It invoked a “Stop the Steal” rally in Alpharetta in December where pro-Trump lawyers promoted baseless conspiracy theories. And it recounted GOP pushback to the changes, including remarks from Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan linking lies about election fraud to the Republican momentum for the measure.

The lawsuit was announced in tandem with a new push by the Justice Department to aggressively investigate threats against election workers. Garland said he would establish a task force to protect the staffers, who have faced a wave of harassment in Georgia and other battleground states since Trump’s defeat.

‘Every necessary resource’

Though Georgia was the most prominent in a wave of Republican-led states that overhauled their election systems this year, a handful of others are considering similar changes in the runup to the 2022 election. The Justice Department said it is watching those states and could take more action.

Voting rights advocates framed the Georgia lawsuit as a warning to others. Bishop Reginald Jackson of the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Sixth District, who has led boycotts in protests of the changes, said it would bring more scrutiny of “racist and unjust legislation that was steamrolled into our state.”

”We must shine a powerful light on the motivations and implications behind this legislation and begin our focus in making sure more people have the ability to vote, rather than less,” he said.

As much as they railed against the Justice Department’s lawsuit, Kemp and other vulnerable GOP incumbents could benefit from the court challenge as they try to rally their party’s fractious base against a common adversary.

The governor, in particular, is facing ongoing fallout with conservatives upset he didn’t do more to help Trump overturn his election defeat.

GOP officials hope the lawsuit could further energize the party’s base in the same way Major League Baseball’s decision to pull its All-Star game in protest of SB 202 galvanized Republicans.

Borrowing from his response to baseball’s decision, the governor called the lawsuit “quite honestly disgusting” at a press conference in Savannah and vowed not to relent to a “woke mob.”

That sentiment was reflected in a wave of reactions from leading Republican officials in Georgia and their allies. House Speaker David Ralston slammed the “partisan pageantry” of the legal challenge.

And former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who started the Greater Georgia organization to promote conservative electoral policies, said Biden’s administration was in for a tough fight.

”We will deploy every necessary resource to help defend this legislation from liberal overreach in Washington,” she said.

Staff writers Mark Niesse and James Salzer contributed to this article.

Georgia’s voting law

The story so far: The Republican-controlled Georgia General Assembly approved Senate Bill 202 in March. The law imposes new voter identification requirements, limits the use of ballot drop boxes and includes many other new requirements supporters say will improve election security. Voting rights groups have filed seven lawsuits seeking to overturn the law, saying its provisions illegally target minority voters.

The latest: On Friday the U.S. Justice Department filed a new lawsuit seeking to overturn several provisions of the law. It also asks for the court to appoint federal observers to monitor future Georgia elections and require federal approval prior to future changes to state election laws.

What’s next: The Justice Department says it’s examining similar laws in other states to determine whether they violate federal law.