President Biden began his recent speech before a joint session of Congress by level-setting with the American people about the three crises he inherited: the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic downturn and “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.” He declared the January 6 insurrection “an existential crisis, and a test of whether our democracy could survive,” and noted that the central challenge of our time is ensuring that America’s democracy will endure.
As American Jews, we have an obligation to heed President Biden’s ominous warning to Congress that, “if we are to truly restore the soul of America — we need to protect the sacred right to vote.”
We must recognize that although our fragile democracy is clearly on the mend 100 days into President Biden’s term, it remains under threat by an ongoing Republican campaign of disinformation, delegitimization and disenfranchisement. In state legislatures across the country, we have seen Republicans cynically exploit Donald Trump’s Big Lie to engage in voter suppression. There is a path forward to protect our democracy and right to vote, but in order to navigate it, we must first understand how we got here.
As U.S. intelligence agencies have plainly documented, the disinformation campaign targeting our democracy began as foreign meddling during the 2016 election. That campaign became a widespread domestic threat during the Trump presidency, culminating with the 2020 election, which shockingly left two-thirds of Republicans believing Trump’s false allegations that the election was neither free nor fair. The disinformation regarding the 2020 election, which became known as Trump’s “Big Lie,” mostly came via tweets from the former president himself.
Well before any ballots were cast, Donald Trump also led a sustained campaign to delegitimize the 2020 election results, with an emphasis on attacking the primary means of voting safely amid a pandemic, vote-by-mail. In the first presidential debate, Trump spewed a litany of lies about the alleged threat of voter fraud, especially with respect to absentee voting. Trump’s effort to delegitimize the election results continued after his election defeat by more than seven million votes. It led to more than 60 legal challenges alleging election fraud, all of which were found to be without merit or were dismissed by courts across the country, including the Supreme Court.
The result of this campaign was the “Stop the Steal” protest orchestrated by Donald Trump on January 6, which directly led to the seditious, violent and fatal storming of the U.S. Capitol.
These campaigns continue to this day despite unequivocal findings, including from conservative institutions, that there was no voter fraud in the 2020 election. Alarmingly, this Republican-led effort has expanded into a dangerous new campaign — attempts to disenfranchise American voters through hundreds of proposed laws to restrict voting rights in 47 states. Even worse, these voter suppression laws, such as the bill that recently passed in Georgia, disproportionately target Black voters and communities of color, and go well beyond restricting vote-by-mail.
The Georgia voting law does precisely what Trump tried but failed to do in 2020 — reduce the size of the electorate by restricting absentee voting. It limits the number of ballot drop boxes and impedes access to them by eliminating 24-hour ballot drops. It imposes arduous ID requirements that make it harder to vote absentee. But it goes even further by limiting in-person voting as well — it shortens voting hours and criminalizes the provision of food and water to those standing in line to vote. It also gives local authorities discretion to ban voting on Sundays, when voting is most convenient for Black voters, many of whom have traditionally voted after attending church. While “discretion” may create a false sense that these policies are not intended to target any particular group, there is really no reason other than voter suppression to prevent voting on a day that’s especially convenient for Black voters.
There is really no reason other than voter suppression to prevent voting on a day that’s especially convenient for Black voters.
Unfortunately, this campaign isn’t limited to Georgia. Florida also recently passed a law that restricts access to ballot boxes and limits vote-by-mail by requiring voters to reapply for absentee ballots for each two-year election cycle. Like Georgia, the Florida Republican-controlled legislature also tried to outlaw the provision of food and water and disproportionately targeted Black voters. Florida Democratic State Rep. Omari Hardy had it right when he observed, “This bill is the revival of Jim Crow in this state, whether the sponsors admit it or not.”
While Republicans have feigned concern that providing food and water to voters in line may present opportunities for undue influence over voters, criminalizing this practice reveals the true intent of these bills. If the objective was actually to reduce the lines at the polls (and thus reduce opportunities for influencing voters waiting in line), Republicans could expand the number of polling places or voting hours. Instead, they’ve made handing out food and water a crime, causing voters inconvenience, discomfort and fear, all of which will ultimately reduce the overall number of voters.
In addition to Georgia and Florida, 45 other state legislatures have proposed or already considered similar voter suppression measures. These laws and, more recently, Republican-led gerrymandering efforts, are facing legal challenges led by esteemed voting rights lawyer Marc Elias, who has described his work as rooted in his Jewish values. In an interview earlier this year, Elias said, “My Jewish upbringing was about the importance of the law and justice.” Voting is the bedrock of our democracy, along with the pursuit of justice, and the denial of this right is fundamentally antithetical to Jewish values.
The battle for the soul of our nation may have started with neo-Nazis marching in the streets of Charlottesville, but it has now moved to every state legislature challenging our right to vote.
Amid these challenges, our Jewish values compel us to act, opposing ongoing Republican-led campaigns of disinformation, delegitimization and disenfranchisement. We should implore the Senate to pass the For the People Act, H.R.1, which would expand access to voting, reverse nearly all the voter suppression measures Republicans have proposed and ensure that congressional redistricting is conducted by nonpartisan commissions. It’s also critical to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which will protect our democracy from the racial injustices that have persisted far too long and ensure equal access to voting for all.
This is an uphill battle, especially with the Senate filibuster still in place, but it’s a battle worth fighting because the character of our nation, the future of our democracy and our values as American Jews are at stake. As Marc Elias suggested on Twitter, as he defeated each of Trump’s “Kraken” election lawsuits, the Kraken (a legendary sea monster resembling an octopus) proved to be nothing more than calamari. And let’s not forget — calamari isn’t kosher.
Halie Soifer is CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA). She served as national security advisor to then-Senator Kamala Harris and as senior policy advisor in the Obama administration.