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New Legal Battle Over Voting Rights Begins In Georgia

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There's a new legal battle over voting rights. Attorney General Merrick Garland has announced that the Justice Department is suing Georgia over the state's new voting law.

NPR justice correspondent, Ryan Lucas, is on the story. And he joins us now. Good morning, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So this Georgia law got a ton of attention when it happened. But that was several months ago now. So can you just remind us why it's been so controversial?

LUCAS: You bet. I think it's important to remember how and when this law came about. And if you think back...

FADEL: Right.

LUCAS: ...To the beginning of this year, Georgia was the epicenter in many ways of American politics.

FADEL: Yeah.

LUCAS: The state flipped from red to blue in the presidential vote. It also voted into office two new Democratic senators to the U.S. Senate. And that was a big deal because it gave Democrats control of the chamber. A few months after that happened, Georgia's Republican-led state legislature passed this new voting law that makes sweeping changes to how people in the state vote. The Republicans who wrote it say it was necessary. They say it will improve election administration. It will improve voter confidence. Opponents and voting rights advocates, though, say it is discriminatory and that it makes it harder for people to vote - and in particular, people of color.

FADEL: And now we have the Justice Department suing Georgia over the law. What does the lawsuit say?

LUCAS: Well, the lawsuit alleges that parts of the Georgia law discriminate against Black voters, make it harder for them to vote, and that that was the intention of the state legislature when it passed the law. And the department says that is a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Several of the provisions that the lawsuit challenges are related to absentee ballots, including a ban on distributing unsolicited absentee ballot applications, shortening the deadline to request an absentee ballot, limitations on the use of absentee ballot drop boxes.

Kristen Clarke leads the Justice Department's civil rights division. She said the Georgia legislature did not make these changes in a vacuum.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISTEN CLARKE: These changes come immediately after successful absentee voting in the 2020 election cycle, especially among Black voters.

LUCAS: Clarke said the provisions the department is challenging reduce access to absentee voting, which she says Black voters are more likely to use than white voters. She says these provisions push Black voters to in-person voting, where they are more likely than white voters to face long lines. And she says a provision barring people from passing out food or water to those waiting in line to vote is also discriminatory.

FADEL: So what have Georgia officials had to say in response to the lawsuit?

LUCAS: Well, they've pushed back. They've pushed back against the allegations. And they've promised to fight. The state's Republican governor, Brian Kemp, who signed this bill into law, accused the Justice Department of being used as a weapon. At a press conference yesterday, he was defiant. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN KEMP: But I will tell you right now, we are not backing down. I am not backing down. And I could tell you that Joe Biden, Stacey Abrams and Merrick Garland don't scare me.

LUCAS: Now, voting rights advocates are thrilled to see the Justice Department take this step. They view it as a necessary action to defend the rights of Black voters.

FADEL: And so what happens now?

LUCAS: Well, this is the first significant action that we've seen out of the Justice Department during the Biden administration to protect voting rights. This is obviously a major political fight right now. More than a dozen new laws have been passed in Republican-led states that restrict voting. Attorney General Merrick Garland has made clear that protecting voting rights is a priority for him and the department. And he said that the department is going to take a close look at laws in other states besides Georgia. And he says the department will take action if it determines that rights are being violated.

FADEL: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thanks so much.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.