The Talmud teaches us that the character of a generation’s leaders is determined by the people that charge him with leadership (Arachin 17a). This teaches us that a community with an opportunity to choose its leaders makes a significant statement about its character. Because the stakes of elections are so high, not just because of the importance of good public policy but also in determining the very nature of society, it is absolutely essential to protect the right of everyone to make their voices heard in elections. In Exodus 30, the entire Israelite community is required to donate a half shekel to the Mishkan, underscoring the Jewish value that all members of society, no matter race, ethnicity or socio-economic background must have the opportunity to contribute to creating our society (Exodus 30:15).
On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee met to discuss the need to reform Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, recently ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court for relying too much on out of date information on voting districts that were reported to have used discriminatory practices in voting procedures. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a leader in the Civil Rights movement, testified about the egregious discrimination and violence African Americans experienced before Civil Rights as they tried to vote. Before the Voting Rights Act, poll volunteers subjected potential voters to “literacy tests,” forced them to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar, and turned a blind eye as members of the Ku Klux Klan murdered people registering African Americans to vote. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who shepherded the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, testified to the need to not slide backwards on this key civil right, as he emphasized that the Voting Rights Act is not a partisan issue.
The panel of expert witnesses testified that the need for the preclearance protections in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is absolutely essential. Section 2, which prohibits voting discrimination, does not provide enough protection, because election discrimination is different from workplace discrimination. Results of elections are time-sensitive matters, and people still get elected and gain the advantages of incumbency, even if elections are tainted by discrimination. Preclearance is absolutely vital to ensure discrimination is proactively stopped before it can have an effect on elections, to help ensure that the cost of litigation of these cases is not prohibitive and to give small and rural communities the legal recourse to protect its citizens from voting discrimination. The panel stressed that voting discrimination is not a relic of the past, but a sinister practice that still persists in very recent elections. Studies of the 2012 election show that African Americans and Latinos on average waited twice as long as whites to vote. Moreover the voting precincts with predominately minority populations had far fewer resources to ensure a smooth and speedy voting process. Stories of overt discrimination also abound. In 2004, people in Bayou La Batre, Alabama engaged in voter intimidation to deter Asian Americans from voting. In 2002, Harris County, Texas was in violation of the Voting Rights Act for failing to provide ballots in Vietnamese for people who needed them. In 2003, Ville Platte, Louisiana tried to redistrict its city’s district boundaries to reduce African American influence in one district to prevent those people from electing a candidate of choice. Preclearance is essential in preventing these kinds of practices, so we hope our Jewish values of protecting everyone’s right to vote will be adhered to by our Congress as they attempt to fix Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.
Image courtesy of John Lewis.