Our Historical Duty to Defend Voting Rights


Fifty-six years ago this week, two white, Jewish New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, disappeared while canvassing black churches in the Deep South during Freedom Summer. Forty-four days later, their bullet-riddled bodies and that of local African-American activist James Chaney were found buried in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Miss.

The hagiographies of the three men, all in their early 20s, sometimes overlook the specific purpose of their mission to the Jim Crow South: registering African-Americans in Mississippi to vote. The shock over their murders was one of the factors that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, meant to check discriminatory efforts to suppress the vote.

In 2013, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, lifted one of the key provisions of the act, which required Southern states to obtain “pre-clearance” from the Department of Justice in order to make electoral changes that could lead to discrimination. Emboldened, Republican lawmakers at the state and local level have rushed to suppress the Democratic vote, in efforts that usually mean discriminating against people of color. Those efforts include stringent ID requirements, purging voter rolls, limiting early and absentee voting and now — with much of the country under lockdown due to a deadly pandemic — blocking voting by mail. Supporters of these efforts publicly say they are combatting “voter fraud” and ensuring fair elections — when they are “solving” a problem that barely exists and ensuring exactly the opposite of their stated goals. President Trump gave away the show when, referring to a Democratic proposal to allow more voting by mail, opined, “[I]f you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

The results can be seen in the disastrous Georgia elections last week, which featured endless lines. The chaos followed a series of Republican-led moves to close precincts, disproportionately affecting black communities.

Obviously this is a calamity for Democrats. But this should also be an issue for all Jews, of all political stripes. People on both sides of the aisle should take this as their cause — taking a cue from Republicans like Paul Pate, Iowa’s secretary of state, who ensured a fair, efficient primary in Iowa by mailing an absentee ballot request form to every eligible voter and extending the early voting period.

According to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, parts of the Voting Rights Act were drafted in its conference room, under the aegis of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Then as now, Jews understood that America’s laws should not distinguish between policies that are good for “them” and those that are good for “us.” When Goodman and Schwerner went south, the Jewish community was only just emerging from decades in which discrimination against Jews was both legal and tolerated. They knew that rights won slowly could be taken away quickly, and that if any people or side was at risk, then all people and all sides were at risk.

“One person, one vote” should not be a partisan issue.