The Justice Department filed a lawsuit Friday to challenge Georgia’s new voting law, contending that state lawmakers included provisions with the intent to make it more difficult for Black voters to cast ballots.
The move puts the Justice Department in the middle of a simmering partisan debate over the Georgia law, known as SB 202, and other state voting laws enacted in the wake of the 2020 election that swept President Donald Trump out of office as he spread unfounded allegations of election fraud.
This week, Republicans blocked debate on Democrats’ signature overhaul of elections, campaign finance and ethics laws, which the GOP senators called a power grab that gave too much control over elections to the federal government.
The bill included provisions to standardize voter registration and early and absentee voting . Changes to some of these matters in Georgia are the subject of the Justice Department challenge in the federal lawsuit.
For example, Kristen Clarke, the head of Civil Rights Division, said Friday the law reduced access to absentee voting at each step of the process, “pushing more Black voters to in-person voting, where they will be more likely than white voters to confront long lines.”
And SB 202 moved the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot up by a week, a critical time period close to Election Day "where data shows that Black voters are more likely than white voters to request an absentee ballot," Clarke said.
The Justice Department can file these types of lawsuits under the Voting Rights Act — and Attorney General Merrick Garland said Friday that the Justice Department was reviewing laws in other states as well.
But Garland pointed out that the Georgia lawsuit comes on the eighth anniversary of a Supreme Court decision that gutted a key enforcement provision of the Voting Rights Act, one that would have required Georgia to get Justice Department approval before the law could take effect.
“If Georgia had still been covered by Section 5, it is likely that SB 202 would never have taken effect,” Garland said. “We urge Congress to restore this invaluable tool.”
Republicans have opposed legislation to update the Voting Rights Act since that 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, which struck down Section 4 of the law. That section created a formula for how states with a history of discriminatory laws had to get Justice Department preclearance for new laws under Section 5.
The conservative justices who formed the majority called that formula outdated and said Congress “may draft another formula based on current conditions.”
The Justice Department’s lawsuit against Georgia also comes on the eve of a Supreme Court decision that could make it more difficult for voting rights advocates to prove that state election laws should be struck down as discriminatory under the Voting Rights Act.
In oral arguments in March, a majority of the justices on the court’s conservative wing voiced concern about setting a legal test that could wipe out legitimate state election laws — ones that had the intent of limiting election fraud, for example — just because those laws affected racial minorities more. That decision is expected before the end of the term at the end of June.