A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted. (Talmud, B’rachot 55a)
States are passing laws that restrict voting rights and put obstacles in the way of people who have a legitimate right to vote.
WRJ has spoken out often of the need to create fair and just systems for citizens to carry out their civic right and duty to vote. In 1944, the Executive Board of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS), now Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ), passed a resolution stating, “To withhold the franchise from citizens of this country is a negation of the basic principles upon which American democracy is founded.” In this resolution and three that followed, NFTS called for an end to the poll tax. NFTS and WRJ continued to call for racial equality and civil rights in many resolutions thereafter. WRJ continues to support efforts to engage voters through education initiatives, candidates’ forums, and ‘get out the vote’ campaigns.
The Voting Rights Act (VRA) was passed in 1965 in response to the attempts by civil rights activists to register voters in the deep-south and the attempt by the Mississippi Freedom Party to have delegates seated at the 1964 Democratic Convention. These voter registration efforts resulted in the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi and the assault on the freedom march from Birmingham to Montgomery. These 25 incidents galvanized the country and moved Congress to ensure that all citizens have the right to vote.
Before this act was passed, states and municipalities placed many barriers to voting intended for use only against minorities. They used poll taxes until a constitutional amendment was passed which banned the taxes. They also used “literacy tests” administered in such a way that no person of color would pass. They used residency requirements to limit the ability of students to vote. The Voting Rights Act barred and or limited these efforts. The VRA was renewed numerous times, most recently in 2006. Under the VRA, certain states, cities, and counties with a history of abusive practices, based on a formula passed by Congress, were required to obtain preclearance from the Justice Department before they could institute changes in their voting laws. The Supreme Court struck down that part of the Voting Rights Act in June 2013, arguing that Congress did not show that preclearance was still necessary because it just reenacted a formula from the Voting Rights Extension passed years earlier.
Even before this Supreme Court ruling, many states, in the name of protecting against voter fraud, have passed laws requiring voters to present government-issued photo identification cards in order to vote. While the states have claimed they are instituting these laws to prevent voter fraud, there have been very few documented instances of voting fraud. The laws are to correct a problem that barely exists. Many elderly and low-income non-drivers do not have such identification cards or birth certificates necessary to obtain the identification cards. States often charge fees to obtain these identification documents and do not have conveniently located places to get them. The Justice Department has found that these requirements have a disparate negative effect on elderly and minority voters. Thus, far more eligible voters have been or will be prevented from voting under these laws than people who have voted illegally.
One such example of this is the case of Viviette Applewhite, who was the lead plaintiff in a 2012 lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Pennsylvania's voter ID measure. At the time she was 93 years old and despite voting regularly for decades, she did not have access to any of the documents needed to vote. With no driver's license and no birth certificate, which were needed to get a photo ID, Applewhite would have been disenfranchised by the law. The Court that heard the case prevented implementation of the Pennsylvania voter ID law for the 2012 election. As of the time of this resolution, no final determination has been made for future elections.
In recent elections, we have also seen states limit the number of voting booths in areas that have a large minority population, causing voters to wait in line for hours to cast their votes. Other states have placed additional roadblocks in the way of casting votes.
Since the Supreme Court ruling, states have passed greater restrictions on voting or are implementing prior restrictions. For instance, North Carolina passed a statute that required voter identification cards, reduced the number of days for early voting, eliminated registering to vote on the same day as the election, prohibited paying people to register voters, and loosened the restrictions on the ability of partisan poll watchers to challenge voters. States have also attempted to purge the voter rolls with little notice or notice that intimidates legitimate voters. It seems that many states are rushing to place more limitations on voting instead of encouraging the widest possible participation in voting.
To maintain a robust democratic society, it is important for as many eligible voters as possible to have the right to vote. States should not make it harder to register or to vote. Rather, states should encourage their citizens to vote as part of their civic duties.
Women of Reform Judaism urges its affiliates to:
- Call upon the US Congress to amend the section of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down, reinstating a preclearance requirement based on revised criteria that will satisfy the Court.
- Monitor activities in their local provincial or state governments, oppose any efforts to restrict voting rights, and encourage voting by supporting nonpartisan voter registration and “Get Out the Vote” drives.