Freedom to vote is one thing; access is quite another

BY ADAM JAFFE

I never thought half birthdays meant anything until I turned 17½ on April 1. It had meaning because this is when I am legally allowed to register to vote in Missouri. The only problem is, I don’t know if I’ll get to vote this November.

Believe it or not, the coronavirus pandemic might not be the greatest barrier to me casting my first vote, but rather a majority of the elected officials in Missouri who may not extend voting access during this pandemic.

I thought I recognized the power of voting in a democracy, but then I joined the High School Leadership Program at Cultural Leadership. The program is a yearlong dialogue and leadership development program that brings together high school students from across the St. Louis region to study social justice through the lens of the African American and Jewish experiences. We ended our learning together by going on a three-week “Transformational Journey” to New York City, Washington, D.C., and many ssouthern states to study the history of civil rights and discrimination in America. 

It was on my Transformational Journey that I learned from social justice warriors the vital importance of the right to vote. This importance is also clearly reflected in the Torah. The Book of Numbers tells a story of early democracy. Adonai tells Moses to bring 70 elders into a tent to serve as advisers to Moses and provide input on how to run the camp. Later, two townsfolk, Eldad and Medad, begin to discuss their own thoughts on how the village should be run. Immediately, someone tells Moses that ordinary villagers are talking about council matters. Moses imparts that he believes all of the villagers can share their wisdom.

Democracy is a fundamentally Jewish value. We believe that voting is an indelible right for not just some, but for everyone. Today, more than ever, that right is in danger. 

When the Spanish flu hit the United States in 1918, voter turnout dropped by 10%. The difference between the outcomes of influenza and the novel coronavirus will depend on the actions of federal and state legislators. Sixteen states, including Missouri, still require voters to provide a valid excuse to submit absentee, mail-in ballots. Under Missouri law, COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, would not qualify as a valid excuse for mail-in voting.

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During Wisconsin’s Democratic primary election earlier this month, Milwaukee was forced to reduce its number of polling stations from 180 to five to serve a city of more than 500,000 people, according to The New York Times. This disproportionately disenfranchised black and brown communities, as census data shows Milwaukee’s residents are 37.6% African American, 34.5% white and 20.2% Hispanic or Latino. 

Because big cities with diverse racial populations are perhaps the most in need of safe voting options, withholding alternatives like mail-in balloting inherently undercuts the sovereignty of our democracy.

I still hold out hope as we approach our next national election. I hold out hope for some COVID-19 treatment and for a coronavirus vaccine. Most importantly, I hold out hope that we can convince our state and federal legislatures that “no-excuse” absentee balloting is a right for everyone and a necessity for true democracy. It is our duty as citizens of this democracy to contact our elected officials through calls, emails and letters to ensure our representatives stand up for the rights of all Americans, and not just a precious few.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., tweeted on July 3, 2018: “Your vote matters. If it didn’t, why would some people keep trying to take it away? #goodtrouble.” 

Adam Jaffe is a junior at Clayton High School and a member of Central Reform Congregation. He is an alum of Cultural Leadership’s High School Leadership Program, Class 14. 

APPLY FOR CULTURAL LEADERSHIP:  Applications are open for Cultural Leadership’s 2020- 2021 High School Leadership cohort at culturalleadership.org. High school freshmen and sophomores may apply.