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Justice Dept. sues state of Georgia over new voting restrictions

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at a news conference on voting rights at the Justice Department. From left to right behind him are Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristin Clarke and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Justice Department officials announced a federal lawsuit Friday against Georgia over new statewide voting restrictions that federal authorities allege purposefully discriminate against Black Americans, the first major action by the Biden administration to confront what it describes as efforts by Republican-led jurisdictions to limit election turnout.

The legal challenge takes aim at Georgia’s Election Integrity Act, which was passed in March by the state legislature and signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp (R). The law imposes new limits on the use of absentee ballots, makes it a crime for outside groups to provide food and water to voters waiting at polling stations, and hands greater control over election administration to the legislature.

The 46-page federal court filing came as numerous GOP-majority state governments have been seeking to impose new voting restrictions in the wake of President Biden’s victory over Donald Trump last November. Trump has spent months waging a baseless effort to discredit the result, making false and unsubstantiated allegations of widespread voter fraud.

One week after it was signed into law, Georgia's Republican-led voting overhaul is facing backlash from a growing number of voting rights advocates. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post)

In Georgia, Black voters helped drive record turnout for the presidential election and handed the state to Biden, who became the first Democrat to win its electoral votes in 28 years. High levels of Black voter turnout also helped Democrats Raphael G. Warnock and Jon Ossoff sweep the U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia in January, ensuring full Democratic control of Congress.

The high voter participation in Georgia “is cause for celebration,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in announcing the lawsuit. Instead, he said, the Georgia legislature passed a bill whose provisions “make it harder for people to vote. The [federal] complaint alleges that the state enacted those restrictions to deny or abridge the right to vote on the basis of race or color.”

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Kemp responded Friday on Twitter, asserting that the federal lawsuit stems from “lies and misinformation” spread by Biden’s administration and other Democrats. “Now,” the governor charged, “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.”

The lawsuit comes at a key moment in the political and legal battles over voting rights, as the Biden administration and the states await a likely Supreme Court ruling next week on an Arizona voting law — a case that could further curtail the reach of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The court’s conservative majority gutted a key part of that act in 2013 when it ruled that provisions requiring nine states, mostly in the South, to gain federal preclearance before changing voting laws were unconstitutional.

Garland said the Georgia law probably would not have been allowed to take effect had the preclearance provision still been in place.

Richard L. Hasen, a voting law expert at the University of California at Irvine, suggested that the Justice Department timed its announcement “to show that even if the court pares back the Voting Rights Act, there’s still room for bringing a lawsuit challenging these kind of laws.”

Hasen said the lawsuit appeared to be “very strategically” crafted, and he added that Garland and his team are “going on the offensive” by asking that Georgia be put back under federal supervision over its voting rules.

Georgia’s new voting measures are already facing legal challenges from private institutions, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which sued state leaders in March.

“The recent Jim Crow election laws in Georgia are a blatant assault on the American people’s most fundamental and sacred right, the right to vote,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a statement. He said that Garland’s announcement “speaks to the level of urgency that is needed to protect our fragile democracy and ensure that all voices are heard. We are in a race against time, and against those working to discount us.”

Garland said he also has directed the Justice Department to establish a task force to bolster efforts to protect election workers from abuse and threats, citing recent news accounts that intimidation tactics have been on the rise. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco issued a memo to the department’s staff detailing the new measures.

They were joined at the announcement by Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. The show of solidarity aimed to demonstrate the department’s commitment as civil rights groups and Democrats demand that the Biden administration take stronger action to protect marginalized voters. A federal voting rights bill has stalled on Capitol Hill amid Republican opposition.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger issued a statement attacking the Biden administration for “doing the bidding” of Stacey Abrams, a Democratic former state representative in Georgia who founded Fair Fight Action in 2018 to combat voter suppression.

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

Abrams tweeted praise for the Justice Department, declaring that “Americans have an ally on voting rights — regardless of race, party or zip code.”

U.S. attorney in Georgia: ‘There’s just nothing to’ claims of election fraud

Trump issued a statement Friday that falsely accused Georgia’s election officials of operating a “CORRUPT AND RIGGED” election, though Raffensperger and other officials have maintained that there is no evidence of fraud, and separate recounts have affirmed Biden’s victory there. In the days following his election loss, Trump tried unsuccessfully to pressure Raffensperger in a private phone call to “find” enough votes to help him overcome Biden’s 11,779-ballot margin in the state.

On Thursday, a Georgia judge dismissed most of a lawsuit that alleged there were fraudulent mail-in ballots in Fulton County last November, dealing a potential blow to a group that has pushed state authorities to inspect all 147,000 absentee ballots cast in Georgia’s largest county.

In detailing the federal complaint, Clarke said Georgia lawmakers rushed to pass the new restrictions outside of the traditional legislative process. The result, Clarke said, was a bill that sought to curb the use of absentee ballots, which Black voters have used at higher rates than Whites in Georgia in recent years.

Garland tries to untangle the Trump legacy at the Justice Department

The law limits the use of absentee-ballot drop boxes, prohibits election officials from distributing unsolicited absentee ballots and shortens the period during which voters can request them.

Black voters, Clarke said, are more likely than Whites to face long lines when forced to vote at polling stations. “The Justice Department will not stand idly by in the face of unlawful attempts to restrict access,” she said.

Liberal groups and some Democratic lawmakers have expressed frustration over what they see as Garland’s slow and insufficient efforts to overturn some of the Trump administration’s policies and practices.

Federal officials said the Georgia lawsuit represents a deliberate but forceful effort from Garland’s team to stand up for the disenfranchised. Gupta, Clarke and Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Pamela S. Karlan helped spearhead the lawsuit, and officials indicated that similar actions could come against other GOP-led jurisdictions that have imposed voting restrictions.

“We are looking at laws that were passed before and those that were recently passed,” Garland said. “We will make the same judgments we made with respect to this one.”

Amy Gardner contributed to this report.

What you need to know about voting laws

Since the 2020 presidential election, GOP lawmakers have been proposing and passing new laws in an attempt to restrict voting access. A handful of states have been in the spotlight, including Texas, Georgia and Florida.

The latest:

Advocates worry Biden is letting U.S. democracy erode on his watch