The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
The right to vote is fundamental to American democracy and has been a key part of the Religious Action Center’s work since our founding in 1961. As you may know, the RAC and Reform Jews have a proud legacy of support for the Civil Rights Movement and portions of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were even drafted right in our conference room! It is for this reason that we were so disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby v. Holder in June 2013, which invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act and eliminated crucial protections for voters. In the wake of Shelby, we have pushed for a Congressional fix through the Voting Rights Amendment Act, but we know that there are many aspects of our voting system that needs reform.
Last week, two new bills, the Democracy Restoration Act and the Voter Empowerment Act, were introduced to protect and restore voting rights for Americans across the country. The Democracy Restoration Act seeks to restore federal voting rights to men and women who have served their time in prison. Currently, 5.85 million American citizens are denied the right to vote because of criminal convictions, 4.4 million of whom have been released from prison and have returned to work in our communities, pay taxes and raise their families. Criminal disenfranchisement laws also disproportionately affect minorities and communities of color because of the racial inequities that persist in our criminal justice system. As a result, 1 in 13 African Americans nationwide is unable to fully participate in civic life.
The Voter Empowerment Act aims to increase accountability, accessibility and integrity in federal elections. While our election system has made great progress over time, we know that it is still fraught with inequalities that make voting less accessible for people of color, people with disabilities and low income communities. Since 2010, twenty-two states have enacted new barriers to the ballot box and at least forty restrictive voting bills have already been introduced in seventeen states this year or have been carried over from last year. The Voter Empowerment Act works to ensure equal access to the ballot box for all Americans by modernizing the voter registration process, allowing online voter registration, expanding early voting, promoting access to the polls for people with disabilities and more.
Our tradition teaches us that “a ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (B’rachot 55a) and to “not separate yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:4). These texts emphasize the idea that everyone must have a voice in determining how their community is run, and remind us that voting is a collective responsibility. It is the duty of all who cherish democracy to ensure that every eligible citizen is afforded the opportunity to vote and have their vote counted. Be sure to check out our Black-Jewish Haggadah, The Common Road to Freedom, to incorporate civil rights into your Passover seder.