The right to vote is the cornerstone of American democracy and our most basic civil right. As Reform Jews and as New Yorkers, we care about a variety of political issues. All of these issues are inextricably linked to the right to vote—by means of the vote, we select our elected officials, who in turn make public policy decisions that impact all Americans. The right to vote is meaningless unless the mechanisms devised to implement that right function effectively.
Elections lose their legitimacy when all eligible Americans do not have the same opportunity to vote. Over the course of our history, the right to vote has gradually expanded to include more of our citizens (such as women, people of color, etc.). In many states today, however, laws make voting more difficult or even impossible for many citizens, while court decisions have weakened the protections voters have the right to expect. Many of these new laws effectively target the poor and communities of color and are a very real form of discrimination. Protecting the right to vote is one of the most important civil rights battles of our time.
In 2016 the Reform Movement launched an initiative called Nitzavim: Standing up for Voter Protection and Participation, which engaged Reform Jews in voter registration and voter protection activities in across the country. . The modern-day effort on voting rights comes in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby v. Holder, in which a crucial provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was struck down. In the wake of the Shelby decision, many states have adopted highly restrictive laws, many of which disproportionately impact communities of color, low income communities, the elderly and students.
In the 2016 general election, New York ranked 41st in the country for voter turnout, with just over 57% of the “voting-eligible population” casting ballots. While New York State has not faced some of these restrictive laws on the books, current law does not include same day registration or early voting, both of which expand access to this core right and responsibility of citizenship and civic engagement.
New York State elections have been subject to criticism by voters and groups such as League of Women Voters, Common Cause, New York Public Interest research Group (NYPIRG), Citizens Union and more recently the Brennan center for Justice At New York University (NYU).
Proposals for Election Law Reform in New York include early voting, same day registration, automatic (opt out) voter registration, no excuse absentee ballot voting, consolidating federal, state and local primaries into a single day, changing the deadline for registered voters to change party affiliation, and more.
While the Governor’s initial budget did include a same day voter registration proposal, the enacted 2017-2018 budget failed to include important election law reforms such as early voting, automatic registration, online registration, and same day registration that would significantly expand voting opportunities. The NY Votes Act, introduced in February 2017 by Assemblyman Michael Cusick, would provide for comprehensive voting and election reform, including the above noted proposals.
Reform Jewish Voice of New York State supports no excuse absentee voting, in person early voting, allowing pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, automatic voter registration, same day voter registration and ballot redesign.
Reform Jewish Values:
The Sage Hillel taught, “Al tifros min hatzibur, Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirke Avot 2:5). It is our responsibility to play an active role in our community and choosing its leaders. Rabbi Yitzhak taught that “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a). This deeply embedded ethic of political participation has guided Jews to enthusiastically participate in the American electoral process.
More than any other segment of the white population, Jews played an active role in the dramatic civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, a movement that ultimately granted citizens of color unfettered access to the franchise. Given our historical role in the civil rights struggle, allegations of voter disenfranchisement and evidence of higher numbers of disqualified votes for citizens of color compel us to speak out. It is our duty to ensure that all citizens are afforded the opportunity to vote and have their votes counted.