Defending democracy during a pandemic

Most people don’t remember that 9/11/2001 was a major primary day in New York City. I cast my vote for a nominee for mayor just minutes before the first tower was struck. After the second tower was hit, the governor rightly suspended the voting for two weeks. The notion of postponing the general election briefly became an issue, when the term-limited incumbent floated the idea of extending his tenure for a few months. But in the end, there was no delay, and the general election was held on its regularly scheduled first Tuesday in November, a celebration, of sorts, of the city’s resiliency, less than two months after the worst day our city had ever endured.

That memory resurfaced for me a few weeks ago when Wisconsin residents were forced to make an impossible choice between protecting their personal health and safety in the face of a deadly pandemic, or as “the People,” protecting their collective right to vote. The long lines in Milwaukee that election day were both an outrage and an inspiration, a profound act of civic duty and an insistent defense of democracy amidst this pandemic.

In times of crisis and in times of calm, there is no more sacred task than voting. It is, quite simply, the most direct tool we have to hold government accountable to those who are the governed. For JCRC, the health of our democracy is so essential to our self-interest as Jews and as Americans, that our mission states that we “promote an American society which is democratic, pluralistic, and just.”

For JCRC, those aren’t just words. They are guiding and enduring values that have informed our policy work and our advocacy for over 75 years. In the spring of 2019, before our current crisis, our Council – through its deliberative process of study and debate – adopted principles for defending democracy. At the time, our Council stated that:

Judaism’s view of human society includes many values that are key to a democracy. In accord with these Jewish values, the hallmark of a well-functioning democracy is the primacy of “We, the People”: an engaged electorate, with robust participation, and elected officials truly representative of home communities, from whom power flows. However, both history and current events are replete with policies and practices that water down the principle of “We, the People” by empowering the elite over the general populace.

This week, our Council met for our first regularly scheduled meeting since the onset of sheltering in Massachusetts. We began by taking the time to check in with and extend care to each other as a community. But we also spent time hearing from partners about the challenges ahead in conducting a free, fair, and safe election this fall in the midst of these daunting challenges.

Yesterday, building on our mission and our principles, we recommitted to comprehensive voting rights and affirmed our support for specific actions, including:

  • Expanding absentee voting including no-excuse absentee voting, permanent absentee voting, and other increased vote by mail options;
  • Preserving in-person voting, carefully balancing the safety of poll workers and voters, and minimizing suppressive tactics.
  • Expanding early voting options.
  • Advocating for immediate federal action and funding to support state and local elections, implementation of these reforms, and the United States Postal Service’s capacity and solvency to meet the increased demands from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Along with urgent priorities in human services, secure institutions, and caring for our neighbors, we’ll be working on these issues in the coming months. When this pandemic is over, we’ll continue to work on reforming and protecting our democracy, as we have for over 75 years now, because, as the Supreme Court held, over a century ago, in Yick Wo v. Hopkins: the right to vote is “a fundamental political right, because [it is] preservative of all rights.”

The strength of our community and the resiliency of our society is protected when we act on our enduring values and principles, even – and especially – in a crisis. Once again, we are called to take affirmative action to defend our rights and the rights of all Americans. Please join us in this work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy