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Civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis calls for more federal election observers

A change in the Voting Rights Act means only five states are set to have federal observers on Election Day. Why does a civil rights leader and Georgia congressman say more are needed?

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    Rep. John Lewis waves after being presented with the Liberty Medal for his dedication to civil rights during a ceremony at the National Constitution Center on Monday. Rep. Lewis is calling for more federal election observers in order to protect voting rights this November.
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As the election draws closer and the race narrows, there are rising concerns about the integrity of the vote count. For one congressman, that means having more federal observers at polling stations come November.

Rep. John Lewis, (D) of Georgia, brings a lifetime of commitment to voting rights to the 2016 election. He was a leader in the civil rights movement and later directed the Voter Education Program, which added 4 million minority voters to election rolls during his tenure. During a roundtable on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, he expressed concern about voter ID laws and decried what he described as, “a deliberate, persistent, systematic effort to make it … more difficult for the disabled, students, seniors, minorities, for poor and rural voters to participate in the democratic process.”

Representative Lewis says that having federal election observers in Georgia, Ohio, Florida, Arizona, and maybe other southern states would help prevent discrimination and intimidation. But a change to the Voting Rights Act means that the Justice Department no longer determines which states get election observers. Instead, a federal court has to rule that they are required.

Is it getting more difficult for people to participate in elections? If so, what can be done about it?

Until 2013, the Voting Rights Act specified that states with a history of discrimination could not change their ballot access laws without federal approval. The change was made because the Supreme Court ruled the provision unconstitutional, saying that it went against the principle of equal state sovereignty. The change has led to the introduction of state voter ID laws, which conservatives say are necessary to protect against voter fraud. But others, such as Lewis, say voter ID laws suppress turnout among minorities. 

The authors of a 2016 study found that ID laws have “politically meaningful” effects. “In the general elections, the model predicts Latino turnout was 10.3 points lower in states with photo ID than in states without strict photo ID regulations, all else equal. For multi-racial Americans, turnout was 12.8 points lower under strict photo ID laws,” wrote Zoltan Hajnal, Nazita Lajevardi and Lindsay Nielson, all at the University of California-San Diego.

For voting rights advocates, the introduction of such laws may be a sign that the state needs electoral observers. 

“There are two ways to evaluate whether a jurisdiction should have election observers: First, where past incidents or problems have occurred and second, where there is good reason, or some basis for believing that problems may occur in a particular election,” Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, tells The Christian Science Monitor by email. 

She cites an incident in Alamance County, N.C., as an example of how treatment of voters can affect turnout at the polls. Several years ago, the local sheriff announced that he would go to the home of every registered voter with a Hispanic surname and confirm that they were US citizens. Under federal law, only US citizens can vote in national elections.

Federal observers, it's argued, could help ensure that legally registered voters are not treated differently when they go to vote on Election Day. 

Problems might occur in a district if racial appeals have been used in a campaign, or if voters feel threatened. In that case, Ms. Earls says, “election observers might be warranted to insure that no one is intimidated or deterred from voting on the basis of race.”

What can election observers do? They cannot change the laws, but they can ensure that they are applied equally. Observers “can see the interactions between election officials and voters and are able to take action if there are abuses,” writes Earls.

Federal courts have so far ruled that five states — Alabama, Alaska, California, Louisiana, and New York — need election observers. In these cases, observers, who are trained by the Office of Personnel Management, are located inside the polling place and are authorized to examine voter rolls for irregularities.

Donald Trump has also expressed concerns about the fairness of the voting process, saying that the elections are "rigged." He called on his supporters to help prevent fraud by signing up to observe elections.

Having observers from across the political spectrum may provide assurance against bias on both sides. But political historian Jon Grinspan, curator of political history at The National Museum of American History, suggests that there is a trade-off between electoral participation and corruption. He tells the Monitor that, in principle, "The more eyes on the polls, the better," but that this involvement has historically led to higher corruption, as in the 19th century. In the 20th century, by contrast, less public involvement in elections resulted in lower levels of corruption.

Partisan election observers have sometimes caused violence and intimidation, which both parties hope to avoid come November. Moreover, citizen observers' direct access to polling stations is usually determined by state and local authorities, meaning that comprehensive observation of the electoral process remains uncertain.

The Justice Department can also send its staff to other locations, but their ability to access polling locations is likewise determined by state and local authorities, reports Reuters. As such, Justice Department observers may not be able to observe voting access problems or potential discrimination.

What can you do to help? Ordinary citizens “can make a huge difference to ensuring a fair election process and to ensuring that federal laws are properly implemented,” explains Earls. “For example, by making sure that limited English proficient voters on Indian reservations receive ballots in their language.”

Voting rights advocates such as Project Vote, the NAACP, and the ACLU are engaged in a range of efforts to ensure voting access, including encouraging early voting. They aim to keep as many paths to participation as possible open in order to prevent vote suppression.

In some cases, that means finding methods beyond litigation. “Working cooperatively with state and local officials when we can is…key to ensure that our voting system remains open this voting cycle,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, based in Washington, DC, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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