How to Vote in 2020
JCJ Clergy Council member Rabbi Lexi Erdheim shares why she signed up to be a poll worker for the upcoming election and why you should do the same.
On May 8, 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom issued Executive Order N-64-20, which, among other things, orders the November 3 General Election to be conducted as an all-mail ballot election. Accordingly, all registered voters in California will receive a vote-by-mail ballot in the mail prior to the election.
While the Jewish Center for Justice has supported and organized local and national efforts to increase awareness of the new vote-by-mail system since the pandemic started, we also understand that this election is too important to take any chances.
If you plan to vote by mail, we encourage you to submit your mail-in ballots as early as possible to your nearest drop-off location. If you are unable to vote far enough in advance, it is safe to vote in person at your local polling location. Just make sure to practice social distancing, wear a mask, carry hand sanitizer, and bring water in case you are standing outside for a prolonged period.
Jewish Sources for Voting
Jewish tradition attests again and again to the value of each individual person. The sages of the Mishnah wonder why the adam, the first human, was created as a single individual. They answer:
“The first human was created as one person so that if anyone destroys a single life, it is as if they destroyed an entire world. Moreover, anyone who saves a single life, it is as if they saved the entire world. Another reason the first human was created as one person was for the sake of peace in the world so that no person could say to their friend, ‘My parent is greater than your parent.’” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
Each person, our sages remind us, has inherent value. No person has more value than another. Likewise, Ben Azzai taught in Pirkei Avot:
“Do not despise any person and do not discriminate against anything for there is no person who does not have their moment and there is no thing that does not have its place.” (Mishnah Pirkei Avot 4:3)
We learn from these texts that we have both a responsibility to protect the lives of each individual in our communities and to honor and uphold the rights of those individuals, including the right to vote. As we approach the 2020 election, it is incumbent upon us to balance these two obligations.
Justice requires that each voice be heard, and each vote be counted, in every election. However, requiring people to vote in person in the midst of a global pandemic would undoubtedly mean that the most vulnerable among us are silenced if they cannot safely visit the polls. We must ensure that they are not told, “My parent is greater than your parent; my vote is greater than your vote.”
At the same time, the value of human life demands we take every precaution to safeguard public health. Voting in person could expose countless numbers of voters, poll workers, and polling site staff to a deadly health risk.
By promoting the vote-by-mail system, we help protect the right to vote of every individual while protecting our communities from further harm caused by the novel coronavirus.
In Leviticus Chapter 18, God spoke to Moses saying:
“You shall keep My statutes and My ordinances, which a person shall do and live by them.” – Leviticus 18:5
About this verse of Torah, the Babylonian Talmud comments, “and a person should die by them.” –Yoma 85b
Together, these two texts form the foundation for the Jewish concept called pikuach nefesh, which means saving a life. In other words, the preservation of human life supersedes performing a mitzvah. But does this principle mean that if someone’s life is at stake, we must give up performing the mitzvah all together? Not always! Rather, we can be creative and find ways to proceed that do not endanger peoples’ lives.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are still being tasked with one of the greatest modern-day mitzvahs, voting. A mitzvah is something we are obligated to do. While none of us are required by American civil law to vote, we should feel obligated by our Jewish values. Voting is our opportunity to elect leaders who will help us to build the world that we pray about, learn about and dream about in our Jewish tradition. Without voting, we give up our responsibility to help bring about this world. This year, however, we cannot perform the mitzvah of voting as we usually do in person.
In order to keep everyone safe from transmitting COVID-19, we must promote voting in such a way that does not put people at an increased health risk. Fortunately, the solution to this dilemma is far less complicated than many discussions of pikuach nefesh recorded throughout Jewish tradition. The system of voting by mail will allow most Americans to complete the important duty of voting and without taking on the extra health risk of voting in person due to the pandemic. As Jews, we must not only vote this year, but we must urge our local and national government to make voting by mail as easy as possible so that we can also do our duty to save human lives!
Texts submitted by Seminary Cohort Fellows Sarah Moody, Rabbi Meir Bergeron, and Rabbi Daniel Friedman
Additional Actions & Resources:
A lawsuit regarding postage for vote by mail that we’re monitoring:
ACLU Federal Lawsuit Against Georgia