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.
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.