In California, 6.6 million eligible voters are not registered — and that is truly pathetic.
From Saudi Arabia to North Korea, in so many countries around the world, people do not have a say in the policies that directly affect them. Nothing is sadder than seeing nearly half of Californians passing up on their right to vote. Yet, part of the issue stems from voter suppression in the both the past and the present.
America’s history of voting rights is not a pretty picture. In the early days of the union, only white male property owners could vote. It was not until the mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries that African-Americans and women, respectively, were given the legal right to vote with the passage of the 15th and 19th Amendments to the United States Constitution. Yet, even after the passage of the 15th Amendment, in significant parts of the country, African-Americans were still unable to vote. Poll taxes, voting tests, and other deliberately discriminatory methods were used to ensure that only certain groups could vote. Such motivation, however, was at odds with American values.
Jewish Americans have consistently been among the first to stand up when American values are undermined and, throughout history, have stood on the side of the American voter.
In the late Reconstruction era in the South, Jews stood alongside African-Americans who were being discriminated against. Jews were largely against poll taxes and against voting tests and were the largest financial contributors to many civil rights groups, including the NAACP. According to PBS, despite being only a few percent of the population, about half of civil rights attorneys in the South during the 1960s were Jewish, leading the charge on fighting Jim Crow Laws. Rabbis such as Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jews across the nation lobbied Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Today, as many states attempt to make it harder to vote via voter ID laws, Jews stand, once again, with the American voter and against such legislation.
States including California and Oregon have not only taken a step against these laws, but have gone a step further with “automatic registration” laws. These laws ensure that every single citizen above the age of eighteen is registered to vote. In California, beginning on January 1, 2016, everyone who is licensed to drive will also be “licensed” to vote.
Westwood’s very own representatives in the California State Assembly and State Senate, Richard Bloom and Ben Allen, respectively, were staunch advocates of such legislation. Both Assemblymember Bloom and Senator Allen are active in the local Jewish community and continue the trend of American Jews supporting expanded voting rights.
Yet, this raises a larger question: why are American Jews, who already turn out to vote in large numbers, so concerned about this issue? When 87 percent of Jews in the United States are already registered to vote, why care? The answer: Judaism teaches respect for the fundamental rights of others. This is why Jews have always stood with the oppressed. As minorities have had their voting rights challenged, Jews have stood by them, striving to make America the bastion of democracy it was founded to be.
Most Jewish Americans fled persecution to come to the United States. And the majority of the places from which the Jewish American community fled did not allow for “equal protection of the law,” as the 14th Amendment provides for. Without a right to vote, one is cast as counting as less than a person.
The passion of the Jewish community against the silencing of any group is very telling of Jewish heritage: Jews will not allow themselves or any other minority group to be silenced.
Voting laws of the past and present in this country have very little impact on the Jewish American community. Nonetheless, Jews in the United States are the first to stand up when anyone is on the verge of having that right taken away, because Jewish values are American values: standing up for the voiceless, for the mistreated, and for the little guy.