Jun 25, 2021

DOJ, AG Garland Announce Lawsuit Against Georgia for Voter Suppression Law: Press Conference Transcript

DOJ Press Conference Voting Rights Georgia Lawsuit
RevBlogTranscriptsDOJ, AG Garland Announce Lawsuit Against Georgia for Voter Suppression Law: Press Conference Transcript

Attorney General Merrick Garland and Department of Justice officials announced a lawsuit against Georgia regarding voting rights on June 25, 2021. Read the full press conference transcript here.

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Merrick Garland: (00:01)
The rights of all eligible citizens to vote are the central pillars of our democracy. They are the rights from which all other rights ultimately flow.

Merrick Garland: (00:14)
Two weeks ago, I spoke about our country’s history of expanding the right to vote. I noted that our progress on protecting voting rights, especially for black Americans and people of color, has never been steady. Moments of voting rights expansion have often been met with counter-efforts to curb the franchise.

Merrick Garland: (00:36)
Among other things, I expressed concern about the dramatic rise in state legislative actions that will make it harder for millions of citizens to cast a vote that counts. I explained that the Justice Department is rededicating its resources to enforcing federal law and to protecting the franchise for all eligible voters. And I promised that we are scrutinizing new laws that seek to curb voter access, and that where we see violations of federal law, we will act.

Merrick Garland: (01:09)
In keeping that promise, today, the Department of Justice is suing the state of Georgia. 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.

Merrick Garland: (01:34)
Several studies show that Georgia experienced record voter turnout and participation rates in the 2020 election cycle. Approximately two-thirds of eligible voters in the state cast a ballot in the November election, just over the national average. This is cause for celebration.

Merrick Garland: (01:55)
But then, in March of 2021, Georgia’s legislature passed SB 202. Many of that law’s provisions make it harder for people to vote. The complaint alleges that the state enacted those restrictions with the purpose of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color. In a few moments, Assistant Attorney General Clarke will talk in more detail about this case, The United States v. Georgia.

Merrick Garland: (02:25)
I want to thank the staff of the Civil Rights Division’s Voting Section for their hard work on this matter and for their everyday efforts to protect Americans’ voting rights. The critical nature of their work is the reason we are doubling the section’s enforcement staff.

Merrick Garland: (02:44)
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.

Merrick Garland: (03:00)
The Civil Rights Division continues to analyze other state laws that have been passed, and we are following the progress of legislative proposals under consideration in additional states. Where we believe the civil rights of Americans have been violated, we will not hesitate to act.

Merrick Garland: (03:20)
We will use all existing provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act, the Help America Vote Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act to ensure that we protect every qualified American seeking to participate in our democracy.

Merrick Garland: (03:44)
Under the supervision of the associate attorney general, the Civil Rights Division is also taking proactive measures to help states understand federal law and best practices. We are in the process of developing guidance to help ensure that post-election audits comply with federal law, and we are working in guidance with respect to early voting and voting by mail.

Merrick Garland: (04:08)
And because the upcoming redistricting cycle may be the first since 1960 to proceed without the key pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act, we will publish new guidance to make clear the voting protections that apply to all jurisdictions as they redraw their electoral maps. These include maps used for Congressional districts, state legislatures, county commissions, city councils, and more.

Merrick Garland: (04:38)
Pursuant to President Biden’s executive order, we are also working to ensure access to voter registration for eligible individuals in federal custody and will assist other federal agencies in expanding voter registration opportunities as permitted by law.

Merrick Garland: (04:57)
Finally, as I noted two weeks ago, we are seeing a dramatic increase in menacing and violent threats ranging from the highest administrators to volunteer poll workers. To address this effort to undermine our electoral process, today, the deputy attorney general will issue a directive to all federal prosecutors and the FBI, which will highlight the prevalence of these threats and instruct them to prioritize investigating these threats.

Merrick Garland: (05:32)
Today, we will also launch a task force, including personnel from the Criminal Division, the Civil Rights Division, the National Security Division, and the FBI, to focus on these threats. We will promptly prosecute any violations of federal law.

Merrick Garland: (05:52)
We are using every method at our disposal in our enforcement efforts, but that is not enough. We urge Congress to act to provide the department with important authorities it needs to protect the voting rights of every American.

Merrick Garland: (06:09)
Eight years ago today, the Supreme Court issued the decision in Shelby County v. Holder. Prior to that decision, the Justice Department had an invaluable tool it could use to protect voters from discrimination, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Merrick Garland: (06:28)
Under that section, any change with respect to voting in a covered jurisdiction could not be enforced unless the jurisdiction first proved to the Justice Department or to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia that the proposed change did not deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.

Merrick Garland: (06:53)
Using that tool, the department prevented over 175 proposed election laws across Georgia from being implemented because they failed the statutory test. If Georgia had still been covered by Section 5, it is likely that SB 202 would never have taken effect. We urge Congress to restore this invaluable tool.

Merrick Garland: (07:20)
I will now turn the podium over to Kristen Clarke, who will tell you more about our filing in The United States v. Georgia.

Kristen Clarke: (07:32)
Thank you, Attorney General Garland. Two weeks ago, you made clear that the department will spare no effort to protect voting rights in this country. As you and I have discussed on many occasions, the Civil Rights Division stands on the front lines of this work.

Kristen Clarke: (07:49)
While it is the honor of a lifetime to lead the division charged with upholding the nation’s civil rights laws, it is also a great responsibility. Today, that responsibility requires that I announce the division has found it necessary to file suit against the state of Georgia.

Kristen Clarke: (08:09)
The Civil Rights Division did not arrive at this decision lightly. It’s our job to follow the facts and the law. And in this case, our careful assessment of the facts and the law demonstrates that Georgia’s recent voting rights law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Kristen Clarke: (08:28)
I want to thank the Voting Section for their tremendous efforts on this complaint and everything that they do. And I want to express my appreciation to the acting US attorney and staff of the Northern District of Georgia for their partnership and support.

Kristen Clarke: (08:44)
Our complaint today alleges that several provisions of SB 202 were passed with a discriminatory purpose in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The Georgia legislature passed SB 202 through a rushed process that departed from normal practice and procedure.

Kristen Clarke: (09:05)
The version of the bill that passed the state Senate on March 8th was three pages long. Days later, the bill ballooned into over 90 pages in the House. The House held less than two hours of floor debate on the newly inflated SB 202 before Governor Kemp signed it into law the same day.

Kristen Clarke: (09:29)
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.

Kristen Clarke: (09:51)
Our complaint challenges several provisions of SB 202 on the grounds that they were adopted with the intent to deny or abridge black citizens’ equal access to the political process. The provisions we are challenging reduce 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. SB 202 then imposes additional obstacles to casting an in-person ballot.

Kristen Clarke: (10:29)
Like all of the provisions in SB 202, the changes to absentee voting were not made in a vacuum. 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.

Kristen Clarke: (10:52)
First, the law prohibits election officials from distributing unsolicited applications for absentee ballots as they did during 2020. The law irrationally shortens both the period during which voters can request absentee ballots and the period during which election officials can mail them out to voters.

Kristen Clarke: (11:14)
In the 2020 election cycle, a voter in Georgia could request an absentee ballot up to 180 days before an election, and up until the Friday before election day. Under SB 202, the state moved the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot by a week, a critical period, 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.

Kristen Clarke: (11:49)
SB 202 imposes substantial fines on third-party organizations, churches, and advocacy groups that send followup absentee ballot applications and requires new and unnecessarily stringent identification requirements to obtain an absentee ballot.

Kristen Clarke: (12:11)
We are also challenging a provision of SB 202 that places restrictions on drop boxes and would limit access and ease of voter participation. In the 2020 elections and the 2021 runoff election, the Georgia State Election Board allowed voters to drop off absentee ballots in drop boxes. This method of voting was widely deployed in the metro Atlanta area where the largest black voting age population in Georgia resides.

Kristen Clarke: (12:43)
During the 2020 election cycle, the four most populous counties in the metro Atlanta area provided over 100 drop box locations for voters. Under the bill, that number is expected to drop to roughly 20.

Kristen Clarke: (13:01)
The drafters of SB 202 did not stop their efforts at making absentee voting more difficult. Historically, minority voters in Georgia have been disproportionately more likely to wait in long lines to vote in-person on election day.

Kristen Clarke: (13:18)
Given those long and protracted wait times, civic groups, including churches, have at times provided food and water to voters in line to make their wait more comfortable. SB 202 bans the distribution of food and drinks to voters in line. As we allege in our complaint, this needless ban was passed with unlawful discriminatory intent.

Kristen Clarke: (13:44)
Finally, our complaint challenges a provision of SB 202 that reduces the likelihood that out-of-precinct provisional ballots will be counted. It’s well-documented that communities of color change residences more frequently than other populations. And because of this greater residential mobility and polling site closures and consolidations, black voters are more likely to end up at the wrong precinct on election day. SB 202 reduces the chances that those eligible voters will have their ballot counted.

Kristen Clarke: (14:20)
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, one of our nation’s bedrock civil rights statutes, prohibits the enforcement of any voting practice or procedure that has the purpose of denying or abridging the vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. As we allege today, SB 202 violates this federal law.

Kristen Clarke: (14:48)
The attorney general has made clear that the Justice Department will not stand idly by in the face of unlawful attempts to restrict access to the ballot. Today’s filing demonstrates the commitment to this charge. The Civil Rights Division stands ready to protect the constitutionally guaranteed voting rights of Americans in Georgia and wherever else those rights may be threatened in our country.

Merrick Garland: (15:21)
Thank you, Kristen Clarke. We have time for a few questions.

Speaker 3: (15:25)
Evan, do you want to start us off?

Evan: (15:27)
All right. Attorney General, you referred to the number of states’ legislatures that have passed new voting laws in the last couple of months. Can you say whether some of those laws that have passed in mostly Republican states, are those under review by the department with a view to perhaps challenging them in the same way you’re doing this?

Evan: (15:50)
And then, secondly, I think the deputy attorney general issued a memo to the field on the issue of threats. Can you say whether, any idea of how many threats are under investigation or is this an effort to sort of get ahead of the 2022 election cycle with regard to threats to election officials?

Merrick Garland: (16:11)
On the first question, it is as I said, we’re looking at laws that were passed before as well as the ones that have been recently passed and as they are being passed, and we’ll make the same kind of judgment that we made with respect to this one.

Merrick Garland: (16:24)
The Voting Rights Section has a process for evaluating them. And when the process is completed, if we decide to make a filing, we will do so. And of course, we’ll let you know.

Merrick Garland: (16:35)
With respect to the second question, we are concerned very much both about deterring threats and about prosecuting past threats if they violate the law. As to the numbers, I think I’ll give the deputy attorney general a chance to talk a little bit more.

Lisa Monaco: (16:54)
Thank you, and thank you for the question, Evan. Look, citizens who protect our right to vote are fundamentally protecting our democracy. And so, we have to protect them. And that’s why I issued the directive the attorney general spoke of a few moments ago, which does two things fundamentally.

Lisa Monaco: (17:13)
It launches a task force in the department to ensure that we are bringing the full resources of the department to protect election officials, whether they’re appointed, whether they’re elected, whether they’re volunteers, regardless of party.

Lisa Monaco: (17:26)
And also, what it does is prioritizes and sends a very clear message to the field, to every federal prosecutor and the FBI, that we need to prioritize the investigation, the identification. We’ve asked them to engage with state and local officials. We have to identify these threats, prioritize their investigation, and prioritize those prosecutions, and hold these individuals accountable who are threatening election officials.

Lisa Monaco: (17:50)
One of the reasons for this task force and centralizing reporting, which is what this directive also does, is to make sure we fully understand the real scope of these threats to election officials and fundamentally to the right to vote.

Speaker 3: (18:03)
All right, let’s go now to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Tia.

Tia: (18:07)

Merrick Garland: (18:07)

Tia: (18:09)
There are already seven pending lawsuits in Georgia against SB 202. How is this federal lawsuit different? What do you think the DOJ brings to the table with all these other actions already pending?

Merrick Garland: (18:23)
For myself, I’d just say, we have said in the complaint, you’ll see it’s quite detailed, it says exactly the provisions that we’re filing. With respect to the relationship to the other lawsuits, I’m going to let the assistant attorney general for civil rights answer.

Kristen Clarke: (18:43)
The Civil Rights Division carefully follows the facts and the law. And here, that’s what we did. We looked carefully at the Georgia law and determined that there’s an important federal interest to protect here, and that’s ensuring that eligible voters across the state of Georgia enjoy equal access to the ballot, regardless of race.

Kristen Clarke: (19:05)
We will continue to do just that. We will continue to analyze other laws that may be passed across the country. We’ll follow the facts and the law. We’ll look at these laws carefully, and where we determine that there may be a potential violation of the Voting Rights Act or another federal civil rights law that the Justice Department is tasked with enforcing, we will act. Thank you.

Speaker 3: (19:27)
All right, Kevin, do you want to go next?

Kevin: (19:31)
Yeah, just a couple of questions, one on the voting rights lawsuit. What prompted on the threats issue? Just following Evan’s question, what prompted you specifically to make the direction that you made today? What about the threats moved you to take that action?

Kevin: (19:52)
And second, Mr. Attorney General, you met with news organizations recently to discuss the seizure of records. Is there anything more that you can do in terms of legislation in Congress to push that issue forward?

Merrick Garland: (20:09)
So on the first question, I want to give credit to the news media. There were a number of articles that collected all the threats and discussed them, putting them together in a way that I have to say, frankly, I had not seen before. And when I saw that significant number collected in that way, I realized quite clearly how important this was.

Merrick Garland: (20:32)
Now, we had been going after these threats as they occurred sporadically and individually, but given the collection and the number, it became apparent we need to have a more focused and prioritized result. And that’s why the deputy attorney general developed the task forces that we announced today, and that’s why I asked her to issue the memorandum to the field, which she did today.

Merrick Garland: (20:59)
On your second question, just generally what we’re planning to do with respect to the subpoenas to reporters going forward is that we will not seek information by compulsory process from reporters who are doing their jobs, and we will not seek information about reporters’ records from third parties under the same circumstances.

Merrick Garland: (21:29)
Your durability question is a very good one. So my intention is to get this out as a memorandum quickly to the field so that everyone is clear about our position. That will then be followed by regulations, which will make it more durable.

Merrick Garland: (21:49)
But you are right in suggesting the only way to really make it permanently durable is through legislation. And I personally will support working with Congress to develop legislation that would make protections for obtaining the press’s records part of legislation.

Speaker 3: (22:06)
All right. Thanks, everybody. Appreciate it. Thank you.

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