Justice Department sues Georgia over voting rights law

AG Merrick Garland said it violates the Voting Rights Act.

The Department of Justice is suing Georgia over its sweeping election law recently passed by Republicans, alleging it violates the federal Voting Rights Act by seeking to disenfranchise 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 Two of the Voting Rights Act," Attorney General Merrick Garland said on Friday.

Garland said the bill signed into law earlier this year by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp includes provisions that "make it harder for people to vote," and the complaint being filed by the department alleges the restrictions were passed "with the purpose of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color."

For months, President Joe Biden and other Democrats have been heavily critical of Georgia Republicans and Kemp for signing Georgia's voting bill into law, equating it to "Jim Crow-era" segregation laws while arguing it's premised on the lie that widespread fraud tainted the 2020 election.

The department's lawsuit will be separate from seven other lawsuits that have been filed against the state of Georgia since the election bill was signed into law in March.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the department's Civil Rights Division said the DOJ's suit will specifically challenge provisions of the law that she said aim to reduce access to absentee voting for Black voters that the department alleges will make it more likely they will have to stand in longer lines than white voters.

"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."

Clarke said the law also "irrationally shortens" the period voters can request absentee ballots and the period during which election officials can mail them to voters in the 2020 election. The lawsuit will also challenge a provision from the law that places restrictions on the use of drop boxes, Clarke said.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco has also issued a directive to all federal prosecutors and the FBI instructing them to prioritize investigations and prosecutions of individuals who have issued threats against elections officials, Garland said.

In the memo, Monaco announced the department has launched a task force with members from DOJ's Criminal Division, Civil Rights Division, the National Security Division and the FBI to address what she describes as a "significant increase" in such threats in recent months.

"A threat to any election official, worker, or volunteer is, at bottom, a threat to democracy," Monaco says in the memo. "We will promptly and vigorously prosecute offenders to protect the rights ofAmerican voters, to punish those who engage in this criminal behavior, and to send the unmistakable message that such conduct will not be tolerated."

Garland also weighed in on recent Republican efforts to conduct so-called "audits" of the counts from the 2020 election, saying the department is developing guidance to ensure they comply with federal law. The department is also set to publish new guidance related to the upcoming congressional redistricting following the 2020 census, Garland said.

Garland had signaled just last week that the department's Civil Rights Division would be taking a more aggressive stance against efforts to curb voting rights and voter access, saying in a speech that over the next 30 days he would seek to double the number of staff who handle voting rights protections.

"We are scrutinizing new laws that seek to curb voter access, and where we see violations, we will not hesitate to act," Garland said. "We are also scrutinizing current laws and practices in order to determine whether they discriminate against Black voters and other voters of color."

At least 15 GOP-led states have enacted legislation with restrictive voting provisions in the 2021 legislative session, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Garland told reporters Friday that officials in the department's civil rights section are actively reviewing election laws across the country for potential violations of federal law and will not hesitate to bring similar action to what they are now bringing against Georgia.

Kemp issued a statement following Garland's announcement accusing the Biden Administration of "weaponizing" the Justice Department "to carry out their far-left agenda that undermines election integrity and empowers federal government overreach in our democracy."

"This lawsuit is born out of the lies and misinformation the Biden administration has pushed against Georgia’s Election Integrity Act from the start," Kemp said.

ABC News asked White House press secretary Jen Psaki during the daily briefing whether there was any response to Kemp's claim Biden was "weaponizing" the Justice Department.

“I would say, if you have such a fear of making it easier and more accessible for people to vote, then I would ask you what you're so afraid of,” Psaki said.

Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger reacted to news of the lawsuit with a statement accusing Biden's DOJ of spreading "lies" about the state's election law.

"It is no surprise that they would operationalize their lies with the full force of the federal government," Raffensperger said. "I look forward to meeting them, and beating them, in court."

But NAACP President Derrick Johnson welcomed the DOJ's announcement, saying in a statement that it speaks to the "urgency" of the matter.

"The recent Jim Crow election laws in Georgia are a blatant assault on the American people's most fundamental and sacred right, the right to vote," he said. "Today's announcement from the Attorney General speaks to the level of urgency that is needed to protect our fragile democracy and ensure that all voices are heard. We are in a race against time, and against those working to discount us."

Bishop Reginald Jackson, the presiding prelate of the Sixth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME), which includes over 500 churches in Georgia, also applauded the Justice Department on Friday.

"For months, GA faith leaders have been pleading with the entire country to review the racist and unjust legislation that was steamrolled into our state," Jackson said in a statement. "We are grateful for the Justice Department’s decision."

The Sixth District of the AME is a plaintiff in one of the seven other lawsuits filed against Georgia's law.

In April, Jackson and other faith leaders representing over 1,000 churches called for a nationwide boycott of Home Depot for, in their view, standing on the sidelines in the state's voting rights battle.

ABC News' Beatrice Peterson contributed to this report.

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