In April last year, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (R), criticized a move from Georgia’s secretary of state to send absentee ballot applications to every eligible voter in Georgia in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The president said it best, this will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia,” Ralston said.
“This will certainly drive up turnout,” he complained later of the secretary of state’s decision.
Civil rights attorneys took note. One of them flagged the interview on Twitter, writing that Ralston was “admitting high voter turnout is bad for Republicans.”
A little more than a year later, the federal government sued Georgia over a new law, SB 202, that put legislative muscle behind Ralston’s gripes about absentee ballots, including by prohibiting elections officials from sending Georgians unsolicited absentee ballot applications. The Justice Department alleged Friday that the changes not only disproportionately impacted Black voters, but also that this outcome was the intent of Georgia legislators.
The lawsuit introduced Ralston’s words to the court record, quoting him saying that sending absentee ballot applications to all voters would be devastating for Republicans. And the civil rights attorney who flagged his comments on Twitter a year ago stood behind Attorney General Merrick Garland as he announced the legal action. That attorney, Vanita Gupta, is now the associate attorney general.
The words and intent of Ralston and others involved with enacting the new voting law, SB 202, will be key in the Justice Department’s efforts to show that the law purposefully discriminates against Black voters.
And though Georgia officials were quick to trash the suit — “the Biden Administration continues to do the bidding of Stacey Abrams and spreads more lies about Georgia’s election law,” Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) said — the 46-page complaint quoted Georgia Republicans several times to drive the point home.
For example, federal civil rights lawyers flagged Ralston’s establishment of a “special committee on election integrity” in January, chaired by State Rep. Barry Fleming (R).
“Rep. Fleming had already made his intentions for new election legislation clear in a November 15, 2020 op-ed for the Augusta Chronicle,” the suit noted.
In that column, Fleming referred to the absentee balloting process as “always-suspect” and said Democrats were “relying” on that supposed fishiness to get ahead in Georgia and other close states.
“If elections were like coastal cities, absentee balloting would be the shady part of town down near the docks you do not want to wander into because the chance of being shanghaied is significant,” he wrote. “Expect the Georgia Legislature to address that in our next session in January.”
The suit then described Fleming’s role, four months later, in introducing a 90-page version of the bill that would eventually restrict absentee ballot applications, impose new ID requirements on their use, and impose penalties on groups that sent follow-up absentee ballot applications to voters.
Much of the lawsuit focuses not on Republicans’ words, but on the facts that legislators allegedly knew at the time the bill was being debated — such as the fact that Black voters disproportionately relied on absentee voting in recent elections, and that Black voters who vote in-person are more likely to get stuck in long lines, both realities made more difficult by SB 202.
“The Georgia Legislature knew from debate within the General Assembly and witness testimony at hearings that SB 202 would harm Black voters, yet it rushed through a hasty process to pass SB 202 while relying on debunked and pretextual claims of voter fraud as a rationale,” the suit alleged.
The context of SB 202’s passage was also unavoidable — most notably, that it followed several unsuccessful efforts to overturn the 2020 election, legal efforts that “often included allegations focused on counties containing significant numbers of Black voters and other voters of color,” the federal government said.
The suit noted Georgia Republicans’ focus on Donald Trump and his supporters’ bogus claims of election fraud in Georgia, which in addition to legal challenges spurred an obsession with Black poll workers portrayed in surveillance camera footage, which the Trump campaign misleadingly spun as scandalous evidence of underhanded tactics.
“Some of the same attorneys involved in the lawsuits testified at state legislative committee hearings about election legislation that would eventually find its way into SB 202,” the suit noted.
“In particular, during a state Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing in early December 2020, lawyers replayed misleading video footage of mostly Black Fulton County election workers tabulating ballots, alleging that the video contained evidence of voter fraud, although these allegations had already been debunked by the Secretary of State’s office.”
“The lawyers also presented individuals who alleged, among other things, that absentee ballots had been cast fraudulently,” it added. “At least one member of the Senate Ethics Committee, the committee to which many of the election bills in the then-upcoming 2021-2022 Legislative Session were later referred, attended that hearing.”
And later, in an April 2021 interview, Lt. Gov Geoff Duncan (R) acknowledged that the hearings fueled momentum for SB 202, the suit noted.
“I went back over the weekend to really look at where this really started to gain momentum in the legislature,” Duncan said on CNN at the time. “And it was when Rudy Giuliani showed up in a couple committee rooms and spent hours spreading misinformation and sowing doubt across hours of testimony.”