The United States Justice Department is filing a lawsuit challenging a new restrictive election law in the US state of Georgia on civil rights grounds, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced on Friday.
The Georgia law, passed in March by a Republican-controlled state legislature, seeks to roll back voting by African Americans in the southern state which has a history of discriminatory election practices, Garland said in remarks at the Justice Department.
“Where we believe the civil rights of Americans have been violated we will not hesitate to act,” Garland said, citing authorities under federal election laws including the 1965 Voting Rights Act which prohibits discrimination in US elections.
President Joe Biden won Georgia in the US’s 2020 presidential election becoming the first Democratic candidate in thirty years to win the state.
The new Georgia law is one of a wave of new measures passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures this year, after former President Donald Trump’s false claims that his November election defeat was the result of widespread fraud.
The US lawsuit against Georgia is being handled by the Justice Department’s civil rights division which “did not arrive at this decision lightly”, said Kristen Clarke, assistant US attorney general.
“Our careful assessment of the facts and the law demonstrates that” Georgia’s new law violates the US Voting Rights Act because it was “passed with a discriminatory purpose”, Clarke said.
Republican governors of Arizona, Florida and Iowa have also signed new voting restrictions this year, while state legislatures in Pennsylvania and Texas are trying to advance similar measures.
The Georgia law, signed by Governor Brian Kemp on March 25, tightened absentee ballot identification requirements, restricted ballot drop-box use and allowed a Republican-controlled state agency to take over local voting operations. The state was a key battleground in the 2020 presidential election.
A sweeping Democratic-sponsored bill aimed at reforming US election laws would have overturned new state restrictions being passed by Republican legislatures. It failed to advance in the US Senate this week.
Garland announced earlier this month the Justice Department was reviewing new voting restrictions being passed by Republican state legislatures and would double the number of lawyers assigned to enforce federal voting statutes.
“This lawsuit is the first of many steps we are taking to ensure that all eligible voters can cast a vote,” Garland said on Friday.
“We are scrutinizing new laws that seek to curb voter access and when we see violations of federal law, we will act.”
Justice will be providing guidance on post-election audits being conducted by Republican and Trump supporters seeking to challenge the results of the 2020 election, Garland said.
Republicans in Arizona have commandeered ballots from the 2020 election and are conducting an “audit” that has been criticised for irregularities.
Republican legislators in Michigan are considering a similar course of action even after a bipartisan review found no evidence of improper voting in Michigan and rejected Trump’s claims of fraud.
Garland is directing the FBI and federal prosecutors to investigate and prosecute threats of violence against local election workers which have surged since Trump’s defeat.
“We are seeing a dramatic increase in menacing and violent threats” against election administrators and poll workers, he said.
Biden had condemned Georgia’s new law, calling it “an atrocity” and “a blatant attack on the Constitution and good conscience”.
After losing the election, Trump had pressured state and local election officials in Georgia to overturn his election loss by disqualifying Democratic ballots.
Trump urged Justice Department officials to remove the federal prosecutor in the Atlanta region. Trump’s actions are now under investigation by Georgia law enforcement officials.