Reform Jewish Voice of New York State Congregations:
Brooklyn Heights Synagogue
Congregation Rodeph Shalom
Temple Beth Emeth
Temple Israel of Northern Westchester
Temple Sinai of Roslyn
PROPOSED RESOLUTION ON REDISTRICTING
Submitted to the URJ Biennial
Throughout Jewish history, broad communal participation in civic life has been of core importance. Rabbi Yitzchak taught that "a ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted" (Babylonian Talmud, B'rachot 55a). In the Nitzavim Torah portion, we see the engagement of all the people, with their diverse backgrounds, positions, and genders, in the life of the community. “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God, you tribal heads, you elders, and you officials, all the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God.”(Deuteronomy 29:9-11) ) Our modern-day responsibility to support the engagement of all people in the life and well-being of our community is no less significant. As the sage Hillel taught, "Do not separate yourself from the community" (Pirkei Avot2:4).
Unfortunately, the ability of all eligible American citizens to participate in civic life is being significantly undermined on several fronts, including a weakening of voting rights protections and drawing of electoral districts in ways that can distort outcomes both at the ballot box and in public policy. Additionally, there are challenges that could threaten the integrity of the decennial Census, on which so many key national decisions rest.
The 2013 Shelby v Holder Supreme Court decision gutted key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, weakening a key tool used to prevent discriminatory voting laws. By a vote of 5-4, the Court upheld the constitutionality of Section 5, requiring jurisdictions with a history of voter disenfranchisement to seek preclearance from the federal government before changing their voting laws. But the Court struck down Section 4(b), which provided the formula to determine which states and counties would be subject to that preclearance requirement. As a result, the federal government can no longer use Section 5 to block discriminatory voting practices before they are implemented.
Under the U.S. Constitution, oversight of elections and election-related decision, such as the drawing of districts, is delegated to the states. Unfortunately, in Shelby’s aftermath, multiple states have changed their voting laws to make it more difficult for Americans to register and vote. These restrictions, which include photo ID requirements and limitations on early voting, have been found to disproportionately affect the ability of people of color, the elderly, people with disabilities and students to vote.
At the same time, gerrymandering – long a feature of the American political system – has increased, resulting in more electoral districts that are intentionally designed to achieve an outcome that favors the party in power. Such drawing of electoral district lines to achieve a political advantage has taken on a hyper-partisan character that now seriously undermines our democratic processes. As the Campaign Legal Center has written, “When politicians manipulate state maps to hold on to power, they’ve essentially chosen their voters, and they no longer need to listen to the concerns of all their constituents.”
The process of crafting electoral districts is itself reliant on the integrity of the decennial Census, mandated by the U.S. Constitution. The census provides a national accounting of the American population and is a key tool used to apportion members of the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as helping to determine the allocation of federal dollars and other policy decisions. An accurate Census is vital to understanding essential characteristics of the American people, such as population distribution, age, race, employment status, income and more.
Even in biblical times, leaders understood the importance of a census. The Torah tells us that in the wilderness of Sinai God commanded Moses to take a head count of the males over the age of twenty for military purposes (Numbers 1:2). This is one of several explicit and implied censuses in the Torah, beginning with the description of Jacob and his descendants as they leave for Egypt (Genesis 46:8-27) and ending with the census conducted for the purpose of settling the Promised Land (Numbers 26:2 et seq.).
The next decennial Census is scheduled to occur in 2020. Unfortunately, there are already signs that the Census’s integrity is in jeopardy. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office placed the 2020 Census on its annual list of high-risk federal areas, noting cancelled field tests, critical information technology uncertainties, and unreliable cost estimates.
As we stated in our 2001 Resolution on Election Reform, “Our tradition teaches us that the process of choosing leaders is not a privilege but a collective responsibility … It is our duty to ensure that all eligible citizens are afforded the opportunity to vote and have their votes counted.”
THEREFORE, THE UNION FOR REFORM JUDAISM RESOLVES TO:
- Affirm its long-standing commitment to the ongoing vitality of the right to vote as essential to the functioning of a healthy democracy and advocate for legislation that restores the Voting Rights Act’s original intent of addressing racially discriminatory voting laws, ensuring that all eligible citizens have the ability to cast their votes and have their votes counted;
- Work locally to ensure access to the polls for people or groups who have been subjected to voter suppression. Support legislation that ensures that fair electoral boundaries are drawn for federal, state and local legislative districts in the United States in order to reflect the populations of those districts, rather than to distort or suppress the vote;
- To ensure the integrity of the 2020 Census and the resulting redistricting, urge congregations to
- Work locally to support the implementation of the Census including encouraging their congregants and others to participate in the Census;
- Educate themselves about the manner in which their state government has determined that such districts will be constructed in their states, to evaluate whether such system is designed and implemented to assure that such system will value equally the vote of each citizen; and
- Join with other groups in their community to do such an evaluation and, where necessary and appropriate, to advocate in their state legislatures for legislation that may better achieve the equality that is so fundamental to our democracy, including particularly assuring that racial inequities are not perpetuated; and
- Advocate for a full and fair Census, including:
- The allocation of adequate federal resources;
- Amelioration of the problem of undercounting of minority populations; and
- Individual participation in the Census.