By Melanie Roth Gorelick, Senior Vice President, Jewish Council for Pubic Affairs
Ken Burns’ recent series “US and the Holocaust” reminds us why energizing and acting upon the Jewish community relations mission of building a just and pluralistic America is, especially now, so important. As communities, Blacks and Jews must come together to fight antisemitism, racism and hate and to ensure that the right to vote is protected for all citizens of this country.
Our country’s founders sought to forge a more perfect union. And yet, sadly, 246 years into our nation’s journey, it appears that we are moving in reverse, as the country faces numerous challenges to the democratic foundations of our republic. Our system of representative government is based on the will and intent of “We the People”, as expressed through our electoral process. According to the Brennan Center, since the beginning of 2021, 18 states have passed 34 restrictive voting laws and in 2022, 39 states have considered at least 393 restrictive bills during this legislative session (Voting Laws Roundup, May 2022, Brennan Center for Justice).
Today, we witness an alarming increase in deliberate barriers to voter registration, closure of traditional polling places especially in multiethnic neighborhoods resulting in extensive wait times at remaining polling locations, changes in ballot collection and drop-off regulations, purges in voter rolls, and the hardship introduction of exact match disqualifications. Documentaries such as “Sabotaged and Suppressed” and “Rigged: The Voter Suppression Handbook” provide compelling testimony of how the voter suppression laws affect Senior Citizens, Blacks, Indigenous Americans, and students, making it more difficult or impossible for them to cast their ballots.
On top of this looms the “fear factor”: the impact of the January 6th insurrection, and the intimidation created by an unprecedented and alarming rise in the threat of white supremacy, white nationalism, antisemitism and racism. Voting districts have been gerrymandered or subjected to “cracking” and “packing” to produce election outcomes that are overtly adverse to minority populations These threats to the very existence of our democracy challenge the safety and security of minorities – including Jews.
Voting and democracy have always been at the core of the civil rights community – now more than ever. So too, voting rights have always been a central priority for Jews. The Jewish community relations field has traditionally engaged in education concerning candidates, organizing debates and encouraged our communities, friends and family to vote. During the pandemic we sensitized ourselves to the impact of racial disparities on Black Americans and recommitted to standing together on racial justice priorities including ensuring fair, free and accessible elections.
At a recent meeting, NAACP leaders shared with JCPA how Black communities are being disproportionally harmed by restrictive laws following the decision of the Supreme Court in Shelby v. Holder, which has taken away protections enshrined in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The NAACP spoke of the many challenges that they now face: original documents required from the first time one registers to vote in order to get new voting cards, the movement of voting place to new locations with little public notice, reduction in available poll workers, and gerrymandering that has reduced the number of representatives from districts that had large minority populations.
“We have fought too long, bled too much, seen too many die, to let our nation carry us back to that place where hope unborn had died,” urged NAACP Chair Leon Russell, at NAACP’s Convention this summer.
Our Jewish values call on our community relations field to help reverse all efforts to suppress the right to vote. Voting and access to voting must continue to be a fundamental right in this country. Right up to the time of the last ballot cast, get-out-the-vote efforts are imperative. Together with other diverse and minority groups, we are called upon to help people register and ensure they have the correct IDs, remind them that their vote counts, answer their questions, listen to any concerns they might have, and encourage them to cast their ballot. We must eliminate all barriers to the right to vote by advocating and passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
These efforts are not about political positions or partisanship. They are about realizing and applying our traditional Jewish values to ensure the United States remains a strong democracy – one in which all citizens can continue to build on our founders’ dreams of liberty and justice for all.