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formula to determine which states and counties would be subject to that preclearance requirement, finding the formula outdated and unconstitutional.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:
- The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Right put together a series of video interviews with North Carolinians denied their voting rights; and
- The Brennan Center for Justice published a three-part series compiling the stories of Texans impacted by the photo ID law.
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:
- The long march to liberation: In this portion, we read about some of the trials Moses and the Israelites face in their journey from Egypt to the Land of Canaan. These stories suggest that the complete Exodus, the full liberation of the Israelites, is not achieved immediately upon crossing the Red Sea. Rather, liberation also comes after and because of the wandering and learning, the constant process of calibrating and recalibrating attitudes and behaviors in conformance with God’s teachings, all characterizing the forty years in the desert. And, it is when the Israelites cast doubt on the value of this long march to liberation, as when they complain about the manna that God gives them as food this week, that they can become the recipients of God’s anger. This is not so different from our modern struggle for civil rights and racial justice. While the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 was a major step forward, and while much has been accomplished to guarantee equal access to the ballot in the 50 years since, it would be a mistake to assume that our journey toward a truly equal society is over. People of color and other marginalized communities still face countless obstacles to fully exercising their democratic rights. Until we have achieved justice and equality for all people in this country, we must maintain our civil rights infrastructure, including a fully functional Voting Rights Act.
- Moses and the elders: In this week’s parsha, Moses grows exasperated with the complaints of the Israelites and calls out to God: “Why have I not found favor in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me?” (11:11). God responds by advising Moses that he should assemble a team of 70 elders to help him lead the Israelites, promising to impart a piece of Moses’s spirit in each one of them. This closely mirrors the advice Moses receives from Jethro, his father-in-law, in an earlier passage in the Torah (Parashat Yitro). While certainly not a modern democratic system by any means, God’s plan contains some foundational principles for our own political system. Most importantly, there is a recognition that Moses cannot govern alone – that the most effective distribution of power is to spread it out over a group of people. Similarly, American democracy is strongest when all eligible citizens are able to participate. New barriers to voting are, however, making it harder for that to happen. A restored and strengthened Voting Rights Act is necessary to ensure that power is not concentrated in the hands of a few, and that our institutions are representative of and responsive to the needs of all Americans.
- Miriam, Aaron and racial injustice: At the end of the parsha, Aaron and Miriam speak disparagingly about Moses’s wife, Tzipporah, because she is a Cushite (12:1). Torah scholars have widely understood the term “Cushite” as referring to someone of African rather than Semitic descent. We might, then, interpret Aaron and Miriam’s comments as evidence of an internal racism or xenophobia that is directed at Zipporah. God does not take kindly to this sort of hateful speech, condemning Aaron and Miriam and punishing Miriam with t’zaarat, an affliction of the skin. Moses then intercedes on Miriam’s behalf, saying to God: “I beseech you, God, please heal her” (12:13). Ultimately, Miriam is confined outside the camp for seven days before she is healed. This story communicates a powerful message of the immorality of racism within Jewish tradition, and might help us as Reform Jews to orient ourselves toward the work of advancing voting rights today. Recognizing that restrictive voting laws tend to disproportionately hinder the ability of people of color to access the ballot, we as a Jewish community have an obligation to resist these laws, and to demand equal democratic rights for all Americans.
Supplementary Jewish Texts and Teachings on Voting and Voting Rights
- The Sage Hillel taught: “Al tifros min hatzibur - Do not separate yourself from the community.” – Pirke Avot 2:4
- Rabbi Yitzhak taught that: “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted.” – Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a
- “This is the generation and those who seek its welfare” (Psalms 24:6). Rabbi Judah the Patriarch and the sages differed in this matter. One opinion was that the character of the generation is determined by its leader. According to the other opinion, the character of the leader is determined by the generation. – Talmud, Arachin 17a
- You shall have one law for the stranger and the citizen alike: for I Adonai am your God. – Leviticus 24:22
- Our tradition teaches us that the process of choosing leaders is not a privilege but a collective responsibility … 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. – URJ Resolution on Election Reform, 2001
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.