Free and fair elections are a cornerstone of democracy, but the presidential election of 2000 exposed significant flaws in the United States' election procedures that denied many eligible voters access to ballots and the right to have their ballots counted. Across the nation, differences in polling mechanisms, design of election ballots, voting rules, hours, and allocation of financial resources contributed to this result. What Americans had assumed almost without thought-that all those who have a right to vote are able to do so and have their votes counted accurately-was shown to be unwarranted in a significant number of instances.
In many jurisdictions utilizing older types of voting equipment, ballots were disqualified at significantly higher rates than in jurisdictions employing more accurate and reliable equipment. In some states, older machines have been concentrated in poorer areas and have resulted in higher rates of disqualified votes for citizens who reside in these precincts, including a disproportionate number of citizens of color. Moreover, due to the lack of legislative prioritization for funding of election administration, officials in many states and localities have not had the resources to hire adequate numbers of election workers and conduct meaningful voter education programs. Finally, in some instances, efforts to purge ineligible voters from registration rolls (including those who have died, moved, or been sentenced as felons) have resulted in the mistaken elimination of eligible voters from registration rolls. Election laws that place high burdens of proof on the voter, combined with inadequate checks and balances in these systems in place on Election Day, have made it difficult or impossible for such aggrieved voters to obtain redress.
Many citizens are particularly embittered over the alleged disenfranchisement of citizens of color during the 2000 presidential election. While the events in Florida have received the most attention, the phenomenon was not limited to that state. Along with the disqualifying of thousands of disputed ballots, there are unanswered questions about both access to the polls and the fairness of procedures for the counting of votes. Many citizens of color harbor lingering resentment over this process, echoing the sentiment of Representative John Lewis (D-GA), who remarked, "I thought this was behind us." Allegations of voter disenfranchisement remind us of the vital importance of our government's obligations to vigorously enforce voting rights laws and ensure that all Americans have free, unfettered access to fulfill their right to a secret ballot.
Our tradition teaches us that the process of choosing leaders is not a privilege but a collective responsibility. The Sage Hillel taught: Al tifros min hatzibur, "Do not separate yourself from the community" (Pirkei Avot 2:4). Rabbi Yitzchak taught that "a ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted" (Babylonian Talmud, B'rachot 55a). This ethic of political participation has guided Jews to take part enthusiastically in the electoral process and is epitomized by traditionally strong Jewish voter turnout. Jews also have placed a priority on voter education and registration efforts. In the past election cycle, the Reform Movement, through the Religious Action Center, took a leading role in this effort by publishing a Get Out the Vote Program Plan and Action Manual jointly with the Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox Movements. Moreover, given our historical role in the civil rights struggle, allegations of voter disenfranchisement compel us to speak out. It is our duty to ensure that all eligible citizens are afforded the opportunity to vote and have their votes counted.
In order to restore confidence in the integrity and fairness of our nation's election process, government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels must work together to evaluate the various components of our electoral system. They should take necessary and appropriate steps to strengthen and/or change policy at the federal, state, and local levels to ensure that all persons wishing to vote are given a meaningful opportunity to do so and that all votes determined to be valid in accordance with established fair standards are counted accordingly. Congress and other government agencies should assess approaches that aim to ensure fairness with regard to the casting and counting of votes, including, but not limited to, the use of provisional ballots and the development of clear and uniform standards for counting disputed ballots within individual states. Government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels should also evaluate and undertake measures aimed at expanding voter registration, increasing voter participation, and ensuring equal access to the polls for all Americans. Such measures could include, but are not limited to, mail-in ballots, establishment of Election Day as a holiday, and same-day voter registration.
For the Jewish community, the events surrounding the 2000 presidential election must be heard as a clarion call to civic duty. The impetus now exists for us to redouble efforts, individually and collectively, to increase voter registration and participation and to engage in legislative advocacy to ensure that vital election-reform proposals are afforded serious consideration by our nation's elected officials.
THEREFORE, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations resolves to:
- Call on federal, state, and local governments to vigorously enforce voting rights laws and to ensure that all Americans have a free, unfettered opportunity to cast their ballot and have it counted;
- Support legislation at the federal, state, and local levels to ensure fairness with respect to the casting and counting of votes;
- Support the replacement of unreliable and outmoded voting equipment with more accurate and reliable equipment;
- Urge the federal government to provide financial assistance to state and local governments to implement improvements in their election procedures and systems;
- Call on the United States Department of Justice and other appropriate governmental agencies to conduct a proper and thorough investigation into the deeply troubling allegations of voter disenfranchisement in a number of states during the 2000 presidential election;
- Encourage federal, state, and local government agencies to undertake measures aimed at expanding voter registration, increasing voter participation, and ensuring equal access to the polls for all Americans; and
- Call on our congregations to sponsor nonpartisan voter registration and voter participation drives so as to fulfill our communal obligations to participate in the electoral process.