The right to vote is fundamental to democracy. Yet in the past two decades, Americans’ access to the ballot box has been curtailed through reduced polling sites, reduced early voting hours, onerous voter ID laws, and other means. The 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby vs Holder compounded these challenges by significantly weakening the Voting Rights Act’s ability to prevent certain states from limiting citizens’ access to the ballot box. The COVID-19 pandemic has created added challenges to voting, as the health of voters and poll workers alike are placed at new risk by congregating on election days and restrictions on movement, including “stay at home” orders. Nonetheless, full and free elections can and must be conducted on schedule to ensure the health and well-being of our democracy, reflecting the words of Rabbi Yitzhak who taught, “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a). We read as well in the Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 163:1 “Rama: For any community matter on which they cannot find common ground, they should convene all taxpayers, and they should agree that each person will voice their views and they will follow the majority.”
The 2001 URJ resolution on Election Reform called 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. Those principles remain essential today. To that end, a range of registration and ballot casting options must be available to voters. Voting days, hours and locations should be expanded to reduce travel and spread out the arrival of voters. No-excuse absentee ballots and vote-by-mail options should be universal to reduce the requirement that people leave home to cast ballots. The practice of voter purges that ostensibly “clean up” the voter rolls but in effect disenfranchise eligible voters, particularly among communities of color, must end. And while elections are the purview of the states, the federal government should consider making election day a federal holiday to further facilitate voting nationwide.
While these steps will facilitate voting overall, during the current COVID-19 pandemic they are especially valuable to first responders, medical workers, and essential workers in all fields whose time and well-being are especially precious. We know too that access to the ballot box remains at risk for traditionally disenfranchised groups, such as the elderly, people of color, people with disabilities, students, formerly incarcerated individuals, and others. In the spirit of our forebears who struggled to enact and fulfill the vision of the Voting Rights Act, we remain committed to protecting the right to vote for members of these vulnerable populations.
Therefore, the Union for Reform Judaism:
- Affirms our commitment to supporting a healthy democracy through elections that are safe, fair, and accessible.
- Calls on states to:
- Expand access to the ballot box including but not limited to universal vote-by-mail, no-excuse absentee ballots, early voting, and new technologies and strategies that maintain the integrity of elections;
- End laws and policies that limit access to the ballot such as voter purges that wrongly remove eligible voters from the voting rolls, strict ID requirements, onerous absentee ballot requirements such as witness signatures and/or notarization, and closing polling locations particularly in communities of color;
- Expand voter registration including online, same day, and preregistration for 16 or 17-year-olds; and
- Ensure polling locations are safe for poll workers and voters, including providing personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies as necessary.
- Urges Congress to:
- Provide states with adequate funding to prepare for the 2020 primary and November elections and future elections, to ensure access to the ballot is equitable;
- Enact legislation preventing states from simultaneously requiring voters to stay at home and denying them the right to file absentee ballots; and
- Pass legislation that ensures the integrity of the Voting Rights Act, to better protect the right to vote for historically disenfranchised voters.
- Calls on URJ congregations to:
- Participate in the Reform Movement’s Civic Engagement Campaign led by the Religious Action Center;
- Encourage 100% voting among congregants;
- Support nonpartisan voter education and registration;
- Work with interfaith and community partners to promote election integrity;
- Support initiatives to educate voters about the new ways to cast their ballot; and
- Advocate for states to implement measures to ensure the integrity of the electoral process.