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Published on May 16, 2017, by in RJV.

Voting Rights

Legislative Ask:

RJV supports the $7 million in the Governor’s budget for in person early voting, and the suite of voting reforms found in the New York Votes Act package (A05312) that will allow automatic and online registration, no fault absentee voting, and restoring parolee voting rights.

Background:

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 across the country. The modern-day effort to protect 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.

Legislative Update:

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 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.

Thirty-day amendments to Governor Cuomo’s FY 2019 budget proposal include approximately $7 million for New York counties to implement early voting in the 12 days leading up to Election Day. And the Governor is advancing legislation to institute early voting in the State. This legislation will require every county to offer residents access to at least one early voting poll site during the 12 days leading up to Election Day. Voters will have at least eight hours on weekdays and five hours on weekends to cast early ballots. Counties must have one early voting poll site for every 50,000 residents and the bipartisan County Boards of Elections will determine the specific location of early voting polling places, subject to standards of accessibility and convenience.

Reform Jewish Voice of New York State (RJV) strongly supports in person early voting. RJV also supports broader voting reforms which would expand access to the ballot, such as those found in the New York Votes Act package (A05312). The New York Votes Act is a comprehensive bill which would fix a number of the barriers that prevent people from exercising their right to vote. It would create an automatic voter registration system, allow for same day registration and online registration, restore the right to vote to parolees, mandate voting material also be provided in non-English languages if more than 3% of the residents of a district are non-English speakers, allow for “no fault” absentee voting so anyone would be allowed to vote by mail, and set up early voting. These changes would make the ballot far more accessible to all New Yorkers.

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.

Jews played an active role in the dramatic civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, a movement that dramatically increased access to the ballot box for citizens of color. Given our historical role in the civil rights struggle, voter disenfranchisement and 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.