WASHINGTON — The Justice Department sued Georgia over a sweeping voting law passed by the state’s Republican-led legislature, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland announced on Friday, in a major step by the Biden administration to try to ratchet back state-level ballot restrictions enacted since the 2020 election.
“The rights of all eligible citizens to vote are the central pillars of our democracy,” Mr. Garland said in a news conference at the Justice Department. “They are the rights from which all other rights ultimately flow.”
The complaint accuses the Georgia law of effectively discriminating against Black voters and seeks to show that state lawmakers intended to do so. It says that several of the law’s provisions “were passed with a discriminatory purpose,” Kristen Clarke, the head of the department’s civil rights division, said at the news conference.
The lawsuit is among the most aggressive efforts to expand or preserve voter protections since the Supreme Court in 2013 overturned a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that had allowed the Justice Department to stop states from passing laws viewed as facilitating voter discrimination.
It comes days after congressional Republicans blocked the most ambitious federal voting rights legislation in a generation, dealing a blow to Democrats’ efforts to preserve voting rights. President Biden and Democratic leaders pledged to continue working to steer federal voting rights legislation into law and to escalate pressure on states and Republicans, with Mr. Biden planning speeches in key states warning against a threat to the democratic process he has compared to Jim Crow.
The complaint also shows that the Biden administration intends to invoke the remaining tools the Justice Department has to aggressively fight state actions that it sees as potentially disenfranchising minority voters.
“This lawsuit is the first of many steps we are taking to ensure that all eligible voters can cast a vote, that all lawful votes are counted and that every voter has access to accurate information,” Mr. Garland said, calling on Congress to give the department more help.
Republicans in Georgia quickly cast the suit as a political move, noting that Mr. Biden and Democrats in the state, including the voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, have vocally criticized the law.
“Joe Biden, Stacey Abrams and their allies tried to force an unconstitutional elections power grab through Congress — and failed,” Gov. Brian Kemp said in a statement. “Now, 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.”
Georgia was the epicenter of President Donald J. Trump’s monthslong effort to overturn the election results. He seized on numerous false conspiracy theories about the election results there, insisting falsely that the outcome was rife with fraud even as three recounts and audits — including one conducted entirely by hand — reaffirmed the tally.
Passed in March, the Georgia law ushered in a raft of restrictions to voting access and sharply altered the balance of power over election administration. It sought to place strict restrictions on ballot drop boxes, bar election officials from proactively sending absentee ballot applications to voters, reduce the time to request absentee ballots and add identification requirements for voting by mail.
It followed an election in which Georgia, a once reliably conservative state, turned blue for the second time in 40 years in the presidential race and runoffs that flipped its Senate seats from Republican to Democratic. The law changed elements of voting that contributed to those Democratic victories. All were close victories attributable in part to Black voter turnout and the state’s voting options. The law has an outsize effect on Black voters, who make up about one-third of Georgia’s population and vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
“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,” said Ms. Clarke.
Critics denounced the law as rooted in Mr. Trump’s falsehoods and accused state Republicans of seeking to undo the Democratic wave in Georgia. Mr. Biden called it an “un-American” attack on voter rights that amounted to “Jim Crow in the 21st century” and promised the Justice Department would look into it.
The lawsuit, filed on the eighth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act, known as Shelby County v. Holder, is an important milestone for the Biden administration, which has made voter rights one of its core issues.
Democrats in Washington are struggling to find an effective strategy for countering laws like Georgia’s that are advancing through more than a dozen Republican-led states this year. Party activists and policymakers have mostly pinned their hopes on narrow majorities in Congress, where Democratic leaders have insisted they will work through the summer to try to mass a meaningful expansion of voting rights and protections against election subversion tactics by partisan state officials.
Democrats have framed the battle as existential, and progressives are plotting a pressure campaign this summer to try to persuade senators to gut the legislative filibuster to allow them to act without Republican support. In the meantime, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, plans to take her influential Rules Committee to Georgia in the coming weeks to convene a field hearing homing in on criticism of the new law there.
This fall, lawmakers also plan to push to pass legislation to strengthen the Voting Rights Act, the statute invoked in Friday’s lawsuit. It would reinstate the provision struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, which requires states with a history of discrimination to clear any voting changes with the Justice Department. The bill is likely to face opposition in Congress by Republicans, who argue that discrimination is no longer a factor in voting.
After former President Donald J. Trump returned in recent months to making false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him, Republican lawmakers in many states have marched ahead to pass laws making it harder to vote and change how elections are run, frustrating Democrats and even some election officials in their own party.
- A Key Topic: The rules and procedures of elections have become central issues in American politics. As of May 14, lawmakers had passed 22 new laws in 14 states to make the process of voting more difficult, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute.
- The Basic Measures: The restrictions vary by state but can include limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, adding identification requirements for voters requesting absentee ballots, and doing away with local laws that allow automatic registration for absentee voting.
- More Extreme Measures: Some measures go beyond altering how one votes, including tweaking Electoral College and judicial election rules, clamping down on citizen-led ballot initiatives, and outlawing private donations that provide resources for administering elections.
- Pushback: This Republican effort has led Democrats in Congress to find a way to pass federal voting laws. A sweeping voting rights bill passed the House in March, but faces difficult obstacles in the Senate, including from Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia. Republicans have remained united against the proposal and even if the bill became law, it would most likely face steep legal challenges.
- Florida: Measures here include limiting the use of drop boxes, adding more identification requirements for absentee ballots, requiring voters to request an absentee ballot for each election, limiting who could collect and drop off ballots, and further empowering partisan observers during the ballot-counting process.
- Texas: Texas Democrats successfully blocked the state’s expansive voting bill, known as S.B. 7, in a late-night walkout and are starting a major statewide registration program focused on racially diverse communities. But Republicans in the state have pledged to return in a special session and pass a similar voting bill. S.B. 7 included new restrictions on absentee voting; granted broad new autonomy and authority to partisan poll watchers; escalated punishments for mistakes or offenses by election officials; and banned both drive-through voting and 24-hour voting.
- Other States: Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill that would limit the distribution of mail ballots. The bill, which includes removing voters from the state’s Permanent Early Voting List if they do not cast a ballot at least once every two years, may be only the first in a series of voting restrictions to be enacted there. Georgia Republicans in March enacted far-reaching new voting laws that limit ballot drop-boxes and make the distribution of water within certain boundaries of a polling station a misdemeanor. And Iowa has imposed new limits, including reducing the period for early voting and in-person voting hours on Election Day.
The Justice Department case reflects an effort to push back on voter restrictions that began in the spring under Mr. Garland; the associate attorney general, Vanita Gupta; and Pam Carlin, who ran the civil rights division until Ms. Clarke was confirmed last month and is now the No. 2 official in that office.
Mr. Garland also announced that the civil rights division was “taking proactive measures to help states understand federal law and best practices.” He also said that the deputy attorney general, Lisa O. Monaco, would lead a task force to crack down on unlawful intimidation and attacks on election workers.
The task force underscores the Biden administration’s prioritization of voter protections, said Joyce Vance, a former federal prosecutor in Alabama.
“Creating a task force that assigns priority for criminal cases of voter suppression and violence against election officials and workers is a sea change at the Justice Department, designed to make sure that the F.B.I. focuses its resources on these cases,” she said. “This is an unprecedented approach.”
According to an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, more than 272,000 Georgians lack the identification requirements in the new voting law. More than 55 percent of them are Black, while Black voters make up only about a third of the voting-age population in Georgia.
The law also took aim at in person voting, banning mobile voter units and any provision ballot cast in the wrong precinct before 5 p.m., requiring the voter to instead travel to the correct precinct or risk being disenfranchised.
Showing up at the wrong precinct was by far the most common reason for voting provisionally in the 2020 election in Georgia; about 44 percent of provisional ballots in the state were from “out of precinct voters,” according to data from the secretary of state’s office. And in Fulton County, home to Atlanta, 66 percent of the accepted provisional ballots were from “out of precinct” voters.
Of the 11,120 provisional ballots that were counted in the 2020 presidential election, Mr. Biden won 64 percent and Mr. Trump 34 percent.
And in a provision that Democrats, civil rights groups and voting rights groups described as simply cruel, the new law banned handing out food and water to voters waiting in line. Georgia has for years been notorious for its exceptionally long lines on Election Day, especially in communities of color.
In statements on Friday, Mr. Kemp and other Republicans tried to paint the Democratic criticisms of the bill as lies; when the bill was passed, some Democratic officials included criticisms of provisions that had been removed during final legislative deliberations, such as a restriction on Sunday voting.
But as disinformation continues to plague the American electoral process, it is often coming from Mr. Trump and his allies. Currently, a group of far-right activists and conspiracy theorists are pushing for yet another audit of Fulton County absentee ballots, the most populous county in the state and one that is 44.5 percent Black.
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