February 28, 2011
The cornerstone of democracy is the election process. The mission statement of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs recognizes that Jewish security is linked inexorably to the strength of democratic institutions and that the Jewish community has a direct stake and an ethical imperative to assure that America remains a country wedded to the Bill of Rights and committed to the rule of law, a nation whose institutions continue to function as a public trust.
The rights of individuals to run for office, support candidates of their choice, volunteer, contribute, and vote are essential. Safeguards are needed to prevent fraud, but in general the more open the electoral process, the more likely the will of the citizenry will be reflected in our government.
Civil Discourse in Politics
Election season has become a period of decreasing civility. Demagoguery and demonization and sometimes even violent imagery have become commonplace. The 2010 JCPA Resolution on Civility recognized that “Robust, vigorous debate about the pressing issues of the day is vital and essential in a pluralistic society, including within our diverse Jewish community…There is greater political and socio-economic polarization, the deterioration of civil interaction, decreased sense of common ground among individuals with divergent perspectives, greater tension around global issues and their impact on American society.”
The JCPA believes that civil political discourse is the key to having a knowledgeable electorate. The deterioration of political disagreement into personalized attacks or hostile argument and sometimes even violence diminishes the electoral process and discourages and alienates potential voters.
The JCPA calls on candidates, parties, political organizations, corporations, unions, political action committees, and others engaging in the electoral process to focus on issues and reject campaign strategies that resort to ad hominem attacks, distort records, and distract from the pressing issues of the day. The community relations field should raise the issue of civility in meetings with candidates and party officials.
Voter Rights and Participation
The JCPA has longstanding policy in support of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The VRA is considered one of the most effective civil rights laws in our nation’s history. The Voting Rights Act is responsible for much of the progress America has achieved towards eliminating racial discrimination in voting; literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and “good character tests” were all made illegal by the Voting Rights Act. The VRA is critically important to ensuring that voters and communities of color have equal and unfettered access to the political process.
The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) is similarly aimed at giving voters the basic rights and protections they need to cast a ballot and have their votes count. Voters with disabilities and language minority voters have important legal rights under the VRA and HAVA.
The increasing presence of active polling place challengers and watchers creates a threat to this hallowed civic process if the right to challenge is abused. Voter challenges are formal challenges lodged by political operatives or private citizens to the eligibility of persons presenting themselves to vote, either at the polls or prior to Election Day. Unfortunately, especially in the emotionally heated environment of a hotly contested election, these efforts can go awry, crossing the line into voter intimidation, discrimination, or vote suppression.
Another cause for concern involves the scheduling of the day on which people can vote or participate in party caucuses and conventions. While efforts to provide more flexibility to voters are admirable, states and parties have not always taken into consideration the rights of religious individuals to vote and participate in election day activities. Elections and caucuses held on Saturdays burden, and for many preclude, the participation of Jews, Seventh Day Adventists and others who observe Sabbath on Saturday. Early, absentee, and multi-day elections yields some accommodation in terms of voting, but do little to address concerns about caucus participation which requires physical presence and election day volunteering, an essential element of our democratic system.
Legislation that requires voters to show photo IDs at the polls can lead to reduced participation in voting, as some lower income people do not have current identification cards.
The JCPA fully supports the VRA’s robust application to the end of eliminating racial discrimination in voting and supports the HAVA’s protection for voters to have fully accessible polling facilities.
The JCPA believes that voting fraud must be vigorously investigated and prosecuted, but should not be a pretext for preventing access to the ballot for citizens simply trying to exercise their legal franchise rights. Concerns remain about system errors or malicious attacks on voting equipment. While new technologies, such as electronic or touchscreen voting machines have made vote tabulation and reporting more efficient, electronic voting does not come without vulnerabilities. The JCPA believes that in order to verify the accuracy of an election’s results, a paper record (“paper trail”) is essential to conduct an audit of voting machines, diagnose programming or operational errors, or provide a meaningful recount in a close election. The community relations field should support the use of voting systems such as electronic scanners, which use recountable paper ballots or, where direct recording electronic machines are used, should support the requirement of a verifiable paper audit trail. .
The JCPA also believes that it is crucial that voters have a calm place in which to cast their ballot free from harassment, intimidation, and campaigning. Respecting the need for appropriate voter challenge and poll monitoring measures, the JCPA opposes those measures that create a hostile, confrontational, or discriminatory environment for voters.
The JCPA opposes the scheduling of caucuses on Saturdays and believes that Saturday elections should be avoided.
The JCPA strongly urges states enacting Voter ID laws to include measures that facilitate the voting process by issuing free state IDs, exempting the requirement of photo IDs with absentee ballots, expanding of the number of allowable IDs, and accepting common name derivates. A voter who does not have the required identification should be allowed to vote after signing an affidavit to that effect which attests to his or her identity.
Voter registration-related problems are perhaps the biggest obstacle voters face each election season. Obstacles disproportionately affect low-income citizens, students, people of color, and overseas military voters, and those that have moved. Every election cycle, millions of American voters are thwarted at the polls because of registration problems. Registration applications go unprocessed or processed with typos, voters are wrongly purged from lists or denied registration, forms are lost, and voters face too few opportunities to register or update their registrations. Registration problems exacerbate other problems on Election Day, leading to long lines, chaotic polling locations, and overwhelmed volunteers. Currently, the responsibility for voter registration rests primarily with individual citizens. Existing technology could be used to register consenting citizens automatically, accurately, and permanently when they interact with government agencies. Modernizing the voter registration system could expand access to the vote for millions of eligible American, save millions of dollars, and dramatically improve the accuracy of the voter rolls.
The JCPA supports modernizing the registration system to eliminate unnecessary bureaucratic processes, save states money, ease burdens on election officials, and simplify the process for voters. The community relations field should support measures that enable automatic registration when citizens become eligible to vote or interact with government agencies and that allow transfers of registration on election day upon proof of precinct residence.
The JCPA believes that competent, well-trained poll workers are essential to protect the rights of voters and facilitate the voting process. The community relations field should support measures that ensure regular training and testing of poll workers to ensure competence.
With completion of the 2010 census most, if not all, states will begin the process of redistricting Congressional and state legislative districts. The process for redistricting is not uniform and in many instances is susceptible to partisan desires to maximize party representation. The result of these practices has been a diminution of competitive elections and a reduced volume of ideas to present the electorate.
The JCPA believes that impartial redistricting policies would help ensure that redistricting occurs in a manner that will not be unnecessarily favorable to any political party, and can improve the likelihood that minorities will continue to have adequate representation.
The JCPA supports measures to ensure that redistricting efforts are implemented in a manner that does not systematically negate any racial/ethnic group, socio-economic class or political ideology.
The JCPA has a longstanding policy in favor of campaign finance reform, including banning soft money, making the airwaves more accessible to candidates and ending or limiting other abuses, provided they are consistent with the First Amendment. The dramatic increase in money injected into elections and the increasing secrecy surrounding these transactions is a cause for great concern. The decision in Citizens United exacerbates this problem, allowing virtually unfettered corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections as protected speech under the First Amendment.
The JCPA supports robust public disclosure laws to ensure that elections reflect the will of the people, rather than financial relationships. Such laws promote transparency. In particular, JCPA should urge Congress to pass legislation that mandates full disclosure of corporate and non-individual contributions and expenditures.
The JCPA is committed to the fair interpretation and enforcement of federal campaign finance laws by the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
Serious study should be made of the role of special interest money in elections, and the ability of public financing of elections to mitigate any corrosive influence it may have. Such reforms could help ensure that elections revolve around ideas to improve and strengthen our democracy. The JCPA urges an open debate of the issues involved, enabling our community and the nation to evaluate the appropriate measures for reform that would strengthen our democratic process.
Voting After a Criminal Conviction
Millions of Americans living and working in the community who have criminal convictions in their pasts are not allowed to vote. Voting may foster a sense of responsibility, encourage community-mindedness, and help in the re-integration of persons formerly incarcerated into society. Laws in the United States disenfranchising persons for criminal convictions are deeply rooted in our nation’s past discrimination and the disproportionate racial impact of these laws continues to this day. State disenfranchisement laws based on criminal convictions result in significant racial disparities among otherwise qualified voters.
The JCPA has consistently supported and reiterates its support for the automatic restoration of voting rights to people released from prison.