Attorney general merrick garland at podium in front of white house seal
Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during a news conference on voting rights at the Department of Justice in Washington, Friday, June 25, 2021. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department is suing Georgia over the state’s new election law, alleging Republican state lawmakers rushed through a sweeping overhaul with an intent to deny Black voters equal access to the ballot.

“Where we believe the rights of civil rights of Americans have been violated we will not hesitate to act,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said Friday in announcing the lawsuit.

Republican lawmakers in the state pushed back immediately, pledging a forceful defense of Georgia’s law.

The Biden administration’s move comes two weeks after Garland said his department would scrutinize new laws in Republican-controlled states that tighten voting rules. He said the federal government would take action if prosecutors found unlawful activity.

The suit also comes as pressure grows on the Biden administration to respond to GOP-backed laws being pushed in the states this year. A Democratic effort to overhaul election laws was blocked this week by Republican senators.

As of mid-May, 22 restrictive laws had passed in at least 14 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which researches voting and supports expanded access. Justice Department officials hinted that prosecutors were looking at other voting laws across the United States and warned that the government would not stand by if there were illegal attempts to restrict voter access.

The increased enforcement of voting rights laws also signals that President Joe Biden and Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke are making good on a promise to refocus the department around civil rights after a tumultuous four years during the Trump administration. Clarke was one of the nation’s leading civil rights attorneys before her nomination to lead the department’s civil rights division.

Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, said he would contest the suit. The Republican official was harshly criticized by then-President Donald Trump and his allies for rebuffing efforts to challenge the outcome of the state’s vote in the 2020 election. Raffensperger largely supported the new law and faces a primary challenge from a congressman backed by Trump.

“The Biden Administration has been spreading lies about Georgia’s election law for months,” Raffensperger said in a statement. “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.”

Gov. Brian Kemp, R-Ga., said in a statement that the suit was “born out of the lies and misinformation the Biden administration has pushed.”

He accused Biden and other Democrats of “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.”

While much of the more controversial aspects of Georgia’s new voting law were dropped before it was passed, it is notable in its scope and for newly expansive powers granted to the state over local election offices.

The bill, known as SB 202, also adds a voter ID requirement for mail ballots, shortens the time period for requesting a mailed ballot and results in fewer ballot drop boxes available in metro Atlanta — provisions that drew the challenge from the federal government.

“The changes to absentee voting were not made in a vacuum,” Clarke said. “These changes come immediately after successful absentee voting in the 2020 election cycle, especially among Black voters. SB 202 seeks to halt and reverse this progress.”

In 2020, just two states had ID requirements for voters requesting a mailed ballot. Along with Georgia, lawmakers in Florida have also passed a law requiring additional identification for mail voting. Clarke described the Georgia law as adding “new and unnecessarily stringent” identification requirements to mail voting.

In Georgia, drop boxes were permitted last year under an emergency rule prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. State Republicans have defended the new law as making drop boxes a permanent option for voters and requiring all counties to have at least one. But critics say the new limits mean there will be fewer drop boxes available in the state’s most populous communities.

For the entire metro Atlanta area, Democrats estimate the number of drop boxes will fall from 94 last year to no more than 23 for future elections based on the new formula of one drop box per 100,000 registered voters.

Clarke noted that metro Atlanta is home to the largest Black, voting-age population in the state.

The NAACP and civil rights leaders such as Stacey Abrams applauded the administration’s step. NAACP President Derrick Johnson said Georgia’s law was a “blatant assault on the American people’s most fundamental and sacred right, the right to vote.”

The law already is the subject of seven other federal suits filed by civil rights and election integrity groups that raise a number of claims under the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in voting.

The Supreme Court also is weighing a voting rights dispute from Arizona that predates last year’s election in which the court could again significantly cut back on the use of the voting rights law.

Eight years ago Friday, the high court removed the Justice Department’s most effective tool in combating discriminatory voting laws: the requirement that states with a history of racial discrimination, mostly in the South, obtain advance approval of any voting changes from the government or a court.

The department also announced Friday that it was creating a task force and advising FBI and U.S. attorneys to prioritize investigations of threats against election officials.

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