What Now? A July 4th Playbook for Protecting Voting Rights

  • Email
  • Print
  • Share
July 2, 2013

This week, Americans nationwide will embrace the cliches and heat up their barbeques, catch some fireworks, debate national policies, hopefully capturing the spirit of July 4th and reflecting on their American blessings. Chief among those blessings — well, for citizens at least —is the right to choose the men and women who represent us. After all, this nation was founded by those who opposed “taxation without representation.”

Jewish tradition also speaks clearly to the importance of choosing wise and respected leaders. In the Talmud (Brachot 55a), Rabbi Yitzhak reminds us, “A ruler is not to be appointed until the community is consulted.”

So as American Jews, how can we respond to June 26th US Supreme Court decision striking down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, the very part used to ensure that voters in regions with histories of discrimination – like the South — are not hindered from casting ballots? Specifically, the Court found that the formula set out in Section 4 of the VRA – the one that determines which regions need the government’s “pre-clearance” before they change voting practices – is flawed and must be abandoned.

The VRA was last renewed in 2006, first with bipartisan support in Congress, then signed into law by President George W. Bush. The record of continuing abuses in those historically problematic areas was clear. Yet the five Justices in the majority held that the formula is outdated and “things have changed.” Discrimination isn’t what it used to be, they said, so Congress better come up with a new way to figure out which areas, if any, require pre-clearance.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s minority opinion included an evocative retort to the majority’s reasoning: “Just as buildings in California have a greater need to be earthquake-proofed, places where there is greater racial polarization in voting have a greater need for prophylactic measures to prevent purposeful race discrimination.”

Justice Ginsburg has a point. In the run-up to the (November 2012elections)[http:/bit.ly/10AsilK], jurisdictions around the country tried to impose voter ID laws that would disproportionately have affected black and Latino voters, sought to limit early voting hours in a manner that would have particularly impacted lower-wage shift workers (who are disproportionately people of color), and/or attempted to impose discriminatory voting district maps. In many cases, it was the VRA that prevented these egregious efforts from succeeding.

The Voting Rights Act’s time hasn’t passed. It’s needed as much now as it has been since its enactment.

Two Things We Can Do

The rights we have as Americans come with responsibilities, and it’s incumbent on each of us to ensure that every eligible man and woman is able to exercise his or her right to vote.

1. Press our members of Congress to act in a bipartisan way (as they did when the VRA was re-enacted in 2006) to pass new legislation that updates the formula used to determine which areas require pre-clearance. Congressional leaders from both parties, from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, have affirmed their support for protecting voting rights. In fact, after the Court’s ruling, Mr. Cantor spoke of the importance of pursuing a “responsible path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected.” The time is now to turn these words of commitment into legislative action.

2. Speak out and turn to the courts when voting rights are violated. Section 2 of the VRA “prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in one of the language minority groups” listed in the law. Though the Court struck down Section 4, Section 2 remains intact. It’s a key tool activists can and should use in court to fight unconstitutional limitations on voting rights.

We at the Religious Action Center take pride that the VRA was originally drafted in our historic conference room and enjoyed universal Jewish community support. It is unfortunate that fifty years after the law first passed, voting discrimination remains a very real threat to our nation’s commitment to civil rights and democratic expression.

On this July 4th, inspired by our Jewish values and the civic passion of our forefathers and mothers, let’s celebrate the gifts of being American by making sure that the right to vote remains assured for all.

Barbara Weinstein is the director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism and the associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by SimonAbramson.com