In colonial America and the earliest days of the country, Jews were among those often denied the right to vote. It wasn’t until 1790 that all states had eliminated religious requirements for voting, allowing Jews (Jewish males, that is) to take part in the fledgling democracy. Jews returned the favor: Over the next two centuries, Jews were at the forefront of efforts to expand suffrage to blacks, to women, to disenfranchised minorities everywhere.
That spirit is alive and well among the Jewish advocates calling for the restoration of crucial protections in the Voting Rights Act. Last year, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the VRA, resulting in a rush by states and municipalities to impose voter I.D. laws and other measures that courts, journalists, and independent researchers agree have a disproportionate effect in suppressing the minority vote. More than a year later, a federal district court in Texas determined that the Texas I.D. law would have a discriminatory effect on the state’s minority voters and had been enacted with an intent to disenfranchise African-Americans and Latinos.
Last week, after the Supreme Court permitted the Texas voter I.D. law to stand, the Anti-Defamation League joined those calling on Congress to restore Section 5 coverage meant to ensure that proposed voting changes do not deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.
In June, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the nation’s community relations umbrella, launched a voting rights advocacy campaign in an effort to reinstate the protections of the VRA. All year, the social justice group Bend the Arc has been mobilizing the Jewish community behind the passage of the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014. According to the organization, “this bipartisan bill” offers “a flexible, modern, forward-looking approach that will restore the key pieces that were stripped by the Supreme Court.”
When Jews across the country speak out on this issue, it sends a strong message, as it did shortly after our nation’s birth, that the historically disenfranchised stand for equality for all.