Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Friday that the U.S. Justice Department is suing the state of Georgia over its new voting law, saying that the controversial measure is intended to restrict ballot access to Black voters.
"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 color, in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act," Garland said at a news conference.
The lawsuit marks the first major action from the Biden administration to combat a series of new restrictive voting measures passed by Republican-led state legislatures. And it came on the eighth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision to gut another key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act, Section 5.
Garland noted that Georgia experienced record voter turnout and participation in the 2020 election cycle.
In March, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, signed Senate Bill 202, a 98-page omnibus measure that makes sweeping changes to the state's absentee voting rules, adds new voter identification mandates and nearly cuts in half the amount of time for voters to request a mail-in ballot. It also expands early voting access for most counties and formally codifies Sunday voting hours as optional.
The legislation outlaws passing out food or drinks to voters within 150 feet of a polling place or too close to voters waiting in line, a provision that Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who heads the department's Civil Rights Division, highlighted at the press conference.
"Historically, minority voters in Georgia have been disproportionately more likely to wait in long lines to vote in person on Election Day," she said. "Given those long and protracted wait times, civic groups, including churches, have at times provided food and water to voters in line to make their wait more comfortable. As we allege in our complaint, this needless ban was passed with unlawful discriminatory intent."
Clarke also said the Georgia Legislature passed the bill through "a rushed process that departed from normal practice and procedure."
"The version of the bill that passed the state Senate ... was three pages long. Days later, the bill ballooned into over 90 pages in the House. The House held less than two hours of floor debate on the newly inflated SB 202 before Gov. Kemp signed it into law the same day," she said. "These legislative actions occurred at a time when the Black population in Georgia continues to steadily increase, and after a historic election that saw record voter turnout across the state, particularly for absentee voting, which Black voters are now more likely to use than white voters."
Garland said the lawsuit is the first of "many steps" the department is taking to protect the right to vote for all eligible voters. He said the Civil Rights Division will continue to examine voting laws that other states have passed.
"We will not hesitate to act," Garland said.
The Justice Department announced this month it would vigorously defend voting rights. Garland said that the department will double the number of voter enfranchisement lawyers and focus attention on litigation related to voting rights.
In response to the filing, Kemp said the lawsuit is "born out of the lies and misinformation the Biden administration has pushed against Georgia's Election Integrity Act from the start."
"[Biden and his allies] 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," he said in a statement.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, another Republican who notably defended the state's administration of the 2020 election, said in a statement he "looks forward to ... beating [the administration] in court."
Garland's announcement comes just days after Senate Republicans united to block Democrats' attempts to pass sweeping voting rights legislation.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., tweeted his approval of the lawsuit shortly after the announcement Friday.
"If Republicans think the fight for voting rights ended with their filibuster of the For the People Act, they are sorely mistaken," he wrote. "Glad to see the Biden Administration is joining this effort. We must protect our democracy."
The Republican National Committee also linked the failed Senate vote to the Department of Justice's lawsuit.
"After failing to sell the partisan federal election takeover known as H.R. 1 to the American people, Joe Biden is now weaponizing the Justice Department to attack election integrity," RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel said in a statement.