US Reform movement launches voter protection initiative
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US Reform movement launches voter protection initiative

Ahead of 2016 election, Reform Jews will work with NAACP and other groups on nationwide effort to alleviate voter suppression

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

A woman leaves the Old Etlan rescue squad building, used as a county voting location, during the Super Tuesday primary voting, Etlan, Virginia, March 1, 2016.
(AFP / Andrew Caballero-Reynolds)
A woman leaves the Old Etlan rescue squad building, used as a county voting location, during the Super Tuesday primary voting, Etlan, Virginia, March 1, 2016. (AFP / Andrew Caballero-Reynolds)

WASHINGTON — Three months before Americans cast their ballots for the 2016 election cycle, the Jewish Reform movement has started an initiative to protect voting rights and maximize election participation.

The campaign — called Nitzavim: Standing Up for Voter Protection and Participation — is in collaboration with the NAACP, PICO National Network and Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

It will be launched Thursday in Raleigh, North Carolina, one of the states most impacted since the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Shelby v. Holder.

The 2013 case gutted two key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, including the requirement that all state and local changes to voting rules be approved by the Justice Department.

After the landmark ruling, North Carolina passed a law that required voters to bring IDs to the polls, limited early voting to 10 days and prohibited pre-registration for 16-year-olds.

Those regulations were thrown out last month by the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a blistering opinion, the three-judge panel said the state legislature demonstrated “discriminatory intent” to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision” and rejected lawmakers’ claims that such measures would prevent voter fraud.

Similar statutes, however, have been enacted in other states, including Texas and Wisconsin. And on August 15, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the aforementioned law and said his state would submit an appeal to the circuit court’s decision soon.

In response, the Reform movement and its coalition of partners are embarking on a nationwide effort to ensure that eligible voters are not turned down on election day and have access to the polls.

URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs addresses the organization's biennial meeting, November 6, 2015. (screenshot)
URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs addresses the organization’s biennial meeting, November 6, 2015. (screenshot)

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the Jewish community’s “deep and longstanding commitment to civil rights and racial justice” is what inspired the branch to respond to the issue of voting laws, which critics say disproportionately marginalizes low-income communities of color.

“Laws or conditions that make it difficult for poor people or disenfranchised people to express their will at the polls is a fundamental inequity,” he told The Times of Israel. “These laws have created barriers for people to vote. We believe they are unjust, and we aim to remove as many of those barriers as possible.”

For Reform Jews, voting rights in America carry a special resonance, as parts of the Voting Rights Act were drafted in the Washington, DC, offices of the Religious Action Center (RAC), the movement’s political wing.

They are now taking a three-pronged approach to the Nitzavim project: getting people to register, getting people to vote, and getting all the votes counted, according to Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the RAC.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner (screen capture: YouTube)
Rabbi Jonah Pesner (screen capture: YouTube)

“Our movement was pretty outraged by the Shelby decision and watching it play out state-by-state as an instrument for voter suppression,” Pesner told The Times of Israel. “It’s all very personal to us.”

Their broad mobilization strategy includes canvassing with their partners in neighborhoods and communities ahead of the election to register voters, along with providing transportation to the polls during early voting and on the November 8 election day.

They will also have “strategic interventions” in states that put voter suppression more at risk, where they plan to have trained lawyers monitoring the polls.

Jacobs and Pesner are expecting more than 100 of the near 900 Reform congregations to participate, and lawyers who belong to those shuls are asked to volunteer. “There are Jewish lawyers in every community in America where there are Jews,” said Pesner, whose lawyer wife participated in a similar effort years ago.

‘It’s really amazing how important that is,” he said. “When someone who maybe doesn’t have the highest level of education, or who maybe is a first-time voter not familiar with the process, is told they don’t have the right ID, they just walk away. But when you have a lawyer there, they can say, ‘Well, hold on, let me just check that.'”

Reverend William Barber addresses delegates on the fourth and final day of the Democratic National Convention at Wells Fargo Center on July 28, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB)
Reverend William Barber addresses delegates on the fourth and final day of the Democratic National Convention at Wells Fargo Center on July 28, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB)

For Rev. Dr. William Barber II, president of the NAACP’s North Carolina chapter and a member of its national board, the historical alliance between the African American and Jewish communities provides both an inspiring and a bitter perspective.

He recalled Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 to protest in favor of registering black voters in the South.

“Fifty-one years ago Martin Luther King sent out a call for religious leaders to meet him in Selma, and Rabbi Heschel was one of those that met him there, along with other rabbis,” he told The Times of Israel.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right), marches at Selma with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Bunche, Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Rev. C.T. Vivian. (Courtesy of Susannah Heschel)
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right), marches at Selma with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Bunche, Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Rev. C.T. Vivian. (Courtesy of Susannah Heschel)

“So the deep history of the civil rights community and the Jewish community and the fight for justice — in terms of voting rights, civil rights and economic-justice rights — has been important in the history of the forward movement of this country.”

But he also said that, due to the Shelby decision, there are “less protections over voting rights now than 51 years ago, because the attorney general now has less power” to thwart undue restrictions on voters.

Pesner expressed a similar sentiment when prodded to comment on the vulnerability of minorities to see their voting rights stripped after two terms of America’s first black president.

“It’s a shanda, an utter shanda,” he said, using the Yiddish term for shame or scandal. “There are estimates that there will be millions of voters, people who actually went to the polls to vote for the first African-American president, who will not be able to vote, or whose votes won’t count, because of laws that were passed over the last eight years.”

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