The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
June 25, 2016 is the third anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case Shelby County v. Holder. This decision weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and opened the door for new forms of voter restriction and disenfranchisement across the country. New efforts to limit voting rights are also a critical racial justice issue, as restrictive voting laws tend to disproportionately impact people of color. To commemorate the Shelby anniversary, and as part of the Reform Movement’s wider racial justice campaign, we encourage Reform rabbis to deliver sermons about the importance of restoring the full force of the Voting Rights Act and ensuring equal access to the ballot for all Americans.
Below you can find information about the Shelby decision, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, the Reform Movement racial justice campaign, connections to Jewish texts and teachings and opportunities to take action.
About the Shelby Decision
On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder. The case concerned the constitutionality of two sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (the VRA). The VRA, which was partially drafted in the offices of the Religious Action Center, protects American citizens from having undue or discriminatory burdens placed on their ability to vote.
By a vote of 5-4, the Court upheld the constitutionality of Section 5, which requires 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formula to determine which states and counties would be subject to that preclearance requirement, finding the formula outdated and unconstitutional. As a result, the federal government can no longer use Section 5 to block discriminatory voting practices before they are implemented.
In the aftermath of the Shelby County decision, we have seen numerous examples of states and localities previously subject to the preclearance requirement changing 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 impact the ability of people of color, the elderly, people with disabilities and students to access the ballot.
In North Carolina, for example, the state government enacted H.B. 589 only weeks after the Shelby ruling. This law instituted a strict photo ID requirement to vote, shortened early voting, prohibited same-day voter registration and eliminated pre-registration for high school students, among other provisions. Although a judge recently found the North Carolina law constitutional, it would likely not have been approved by the federal government under the preclearance system.
Overly burdensome voting restrictions are not an abstract threat to democracy; they affect real people. Here are two links to organizations that have collected stories of real people impacted by the Shelby decision and by voter suppression laws:
About the Voting Rights Advancement Act
The Voting Rights Advancement Act (S. 1659/H.R. 2867) would correct the course set by the Supreme Court in the Shelby decision by restoring to full force and further strengthening the Voting Rights Act. The bill would update the Section 4(b) preclearance formula to cover states with a pattern of discrimination and disenfranchisement, protect voters from new types of voting requirements that tend to disparately impact people of color and language minorities and require that jurisdictions make voting changes public and transparent, among other provisions.
About the Racial Justice Campaign
At Biennial 2015, the Reform Movement launched a racial justice campaign aimed at empowering Reform Jews to address issues of structural racism in their congregations and communities. The racial justice campaign is centered around the three “R’s”: reflect, relate and reform – each representing a different modality to tackle racial justice. You can learn more about the racial justice campaign at www.rac.org/racial-justice.
The “reform” component of the campaign seeks to leverage the power of the Reform Movement to transform the policies and institutions that perpetuate racial injustice in the United States, with a particular focus on the criminal justice system and on voting rights. Passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act would represent a major step forward in working to ensure that all Americans are provided with equal access to the ballot, regardless of race or ethnicity.
Connections to Parashat B’haalot’cha
The parsha for the week of the Shelby anniversary is B’haalot’cha, from the Book of Numbers. In this portion, we read about the initiation ceremony for the Levites, God’s response to the Israelites’ complaints about the food they are provided and the punishment for Miriam and Aaron speaking disparagingly about Moses and his wife, Tzipporah. Here are several possible talking points for connecting this parsha with the modern struggle for voting rights:
Supplementary Jewish Texts and Teachings on Voting and Voting Rights
On the anniversary of the Shelby County decision, encourage your congregation to take action to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act and restore voting rights protections by filling out the RAC’s action alert at www.rac.org/vraa.
You can also share the RAC’s Shelby Anniversary graphic and action alert on social media with the hashtag #RestoreTheVRA.
Another effective way to resist efforts to restrict access to the ballot is to help members of your congregation and community register to vote and educate themselves about the issues in the upcoming election. To learn more about how to host a voter registration drive, a candidate forum or an issue night in your synagogue, check out the RAC’s Get Out the Vote Guide.