Reform group launches national voting rights campaign

Reform Jews were preparing to kick off a nationwide initiative this week aimed at facilitating voter participation in the black community and beyond in the 2016 presidential election.

The voting rights initiative of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism was scheduled to begin Aug. 18 in Raleigh, North Carolina, in cooperation with the NAACP and PICO — the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and People Improving Communities through Organizing, respectively — the Jewish organization said in a statement.

The initiative, which is based on training and engagement, is called “Nitzavim: Standing Up for Voter Protection and Participation.” Nitzavim in Hebrew is the plural form for “standing up.”

Rabbi Sydney Mintz

“This is going to be first election since the Voting Rights Act has been eviscerated in a big way,” said Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, who is taking a leadership role in the campaign. “This is the beginning of whatever we can do between now and Nov. 8 to make sure that every single person in this country who wants to vote can vote.”

The Reform movement has been critical of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision three years ago in Shelby County v. Holder that invalidated key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In the wake of that decision, according to the Religious Action Center, states enacted restrictive voting laws that include registration restrictions, photo ID requirements and cutbacks in early voting. Such restrictions have a disproportionate impact on black voters, advocates say.

The Nitzavim campaign will feature “voter protection and participation events in Raleigh-Durham this month and across the U.S. through November,” read the statement by the Religious Action Center, which said it “plans to recruit at least 100 Reform congregations and 100 lawyers to help ensure all eligible voters have access to the ballot box this November.”

Bay Area residents who want to participate in the campaign can join trips to states with restrictive voting laws, help register people to vote in California, educate others about the election and of course, vote themselves, Mintz said.

“There’s no such thing in Judaism as an innocent bystander,” Mintz said.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump recently urged his supporters to take it upon themselves to monitor polls on Election Day to deter voter fraud, raising fears that such actions would be used to intimidate legitimate voters. While Mintz said there is no evidence the U.S. has a problem with voter fraud, she thinks the GOP candidate got something right.

“I agree with Donald Trump that we have to be very aware of what’s going on in polling places,” Mintz said. “This is a time when we really do need to monitor polling places and make sure things are being done by the book. Look at places where there are voter suppression laws: every citizen in this country who has an opportunity to vote should exercise it.”

From August to November, the Reform movement will be partnering with the NAACP, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the PICO National Network, as well as other groups, to bring Nitzavim to communities across the country and protect the right to vote this election year.

Mintz is joining the Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, and other NAACP and Religious Action Center members at the kickoff this weekend in Raleigh in which the initiative’s volunteers will be hearing from local and national leaders, receiving skills training and registering North Carolinians to vote.

JTA contributed to this report.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a J. parenting columnist and former staff writer. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.