Justice Department to sue Georgia over sweeping voting restrictions

Civil rights officials to challenge far-reaching voting restrictions in Georgia in first major Biden-era voter suppression case

Alex Woodward
New York
Friday 25 June 2021 15:46 BST
Justice Department to challenge Georgia voting restrictions

The US Department of Justice will sue the state of Georgia over the passage of an elections law with far-reaching restrictions on voting, marking the first major challenge under President Joe Biden against a nationwide voter suppression campaign in Republican-dominated state legislatures.

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the federal government’s legal challenge on 25 June, after he pledged to scrutinise new elections laws in at least 14 states and double the staff in his civil rights division.

“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 colour, in violation ... of the Voting Rights Act,” he announced.

The lawsuit will be carried by civil rights chief Kristen Clarke and associate attorney general Vanita Gupta, two recently appointed Justice Department officials with long careers in civil rights litigation.

In remarks on 11 June recommitting the agency to protecting the Voting Rights Act and other measures to combat discrimination at the polls, the attorney general criticised the false narrative fuelling partisan “audits” of 2020 election results and the dozens of bills filed in its wake, as Republican lawmakers validate Donald Trump’s “stolen election” myth with nearly 400 pieces of legislation aimed at limiting access to the ballot, and disproportionately targeting voters of colour.

“Justifications proffered in support of post-election audits and restrictions on voting have relied on allegations of voting fraud in the 2020 election that have been refuted by … every court, federal and state, that has considered them,” Mr Garland said earlier this month.

At least 22 new laws have made voting more difficult in more than a dozen states, though changes to states’ election laws are “not calibrated to address the kinds of voting fraud addressed in their allegations,” he said.

Signed into law in March by Governor Brian Kemp, Georgia’s law restricts the use of mail-in ballots, criminalises handing out food and water in long lines at the polls, and gives greater electoral oversight to GOP lawmakers, who voted to strip that authority from elections administrators.

Following the DOJ’s announcement, the governor accused the administration and voting rights advocates like Stacey Abrams of “weaponizing” the agency “to carry out their far-left agenda that undermines election integrity and empowers federal government overreach in our democracy.”

The president has repeatedly criticised the law, including in remarks on 24 June, when he called it “simply wrong, and in my view, it borders on being immoral”.

“What these guys are trying to do now ... is say that if we don’t like the way the vote turned out, and we control the state legislature, we’re gonna say the vote didn’t count, and we’re going to recount,” the president said. “Who in God’s name, as my mother would say, died and left them boss?”

The Justice Department announcement comes just days after Senate Republicans blocked a voting rights bill that would create national standards for mail-in and early voting, automatically register eligible voters, end partisan gerrymandering, and expose “dark money” donors in campaign fundraising, among other measures.

Attorney General Garland has urged the Senate to pass the bill, along with a restoration of the Voting Rights Act – to be named in honour of late civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis – after the US Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling that gutted critical federal oversight measures to protect against discriminatory laws.

Upcoming redistricting processes for congressional and local election districts will be the first without those key protections. The Justice Department will also issue new guidance ahead of those debates, Mr Garland said.

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