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U.S. sues Georgia in start of push to protect voting rights

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WASHINGTON, June 25 (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department on Friday challenged a Georgia election law that it said infringes on the rights of Black voters, as it kicked off a campaign against a wave of state actions that it said would reduce access to the ballot.

The Georgia law, which also bans the distribution of water or food to people waiting on long lines at polling places, is one of hundreds of new measures passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures this year, fueled by former President Donald Trump's false claims that his November election defeat was the result of fraud.

"This lawsuit is the first of many steps we are taking to ensure that all eligible voters can cast a vote," Attorney General Merrick Garland told a news conference. "We are scrutinizing new laws that seek to curb voter access and when we see violations of federal law, we will act."

After a sweeping Democratic-sponsored election reform bill died on a party-line vote in the Senate this week, President Joe Biden vowed to take other steps to protect voting rights.

The department will also be offering new guidance on post-election audits, following a wave of challenges to the 2020 results by Trump supporters, and issue the FBI and federal prosecutors new directions to prosecute threats to election workers.

"We are seeing a dramatic increase in menacing and violent threats, ranging from the highest administrators to volunteer poll workers," Garland said.

The 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.

Those states will be battlegrounds in next year's midterm elections, which will determine control of Congress.

The Georgia law, signed by Governor Brian Kemp on March 25, tightened absentee ballot identification requirements, restricted ballot drop-box use, allowed a Republican-controlled state agency to take over local voting operations.

GEORGIA A BATTLEGROUND

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People gather during a stop on the Freedom Ride For Voting Rights at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. June 21, 2021. REUTERS/Dustin Chambers

The state was a key battleground in the 2020 presidential election and was also the site of a pair of January run-off elections won by Democrats that gave Biden's party a razor-thin majority in the U.S. Senate.

Biden, who became the first Democratic presidential candidate in three decades to win Georgia, has called the new law an "atrocity."

"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 in a statement on Friday. "They are weaponizing the U.S. Department of Justice to carry out their far-left agenda."

Trump repeatedly sought to pressure election officials in Georgia after losing the state to Biden. In a phone call to the secretary of state, Trump asked him to "find" the votes that would be needed to overturn his election loss.

He also pressured the Justice Department to oust the U.S. Attorney in the Atlanta region. His actions are now under investigation by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.

Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, said the Georgia legislature passed the law "through a rushed process that departed from the normal practice."

The lawsuit, she said, takes aim at a number of the law's provisions, including its restrictions on absentee voting - a measure she says will push Black voters into voting in person in a state that is often faced with long lines.

She said the department is also challenging the ban on handing out food and water to voters, as well as the law's restrictions on the number of ballot drop boxes, among other measures.

"The Justice Department will not stand idly by in the face of unlawful attempts to restrict access to the ballot," she said.

The conservative-majority Supreme Court in recent years has made it more difficult to challenge both voting restrictions and the drawing of legislative districts.

In 2013, it gutted a key section of the Voting Rights Act that protects minority voters and in 2019 rejected efforts to rein in electoral map manipulation by politicians aimed at entrenching one party in power, a practice known as gerrymandering. The court next week could further weaken the Voting Rights Act in a ruling on voting restrictions in Arizona.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Scott Malone and Chizu Nomiyama
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