PHOTO From left to right: Ami Horowitz, Dennis Prager, Mark Levin & Edward Blum
It was 1908, and New York City was in the midst of its biggest wave of Jewish immigration. As election time approached, city officials, worried about the potential electoral boost these new immigrants would give socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs, took action. Strict voter registration requirements were already in place in New York, forcing residents to register every year, supposedly as a way to prevent fraud. Now, another hurdle was introduced, one that could only be seen as a way to disenfranchise Jewish voters: Registration days were set for Saturdays, and once a year on a Monday—except that the Monday in question was Yom Kippur. This obvious attempt to suppress Jewish votes was not unusual at the time. Minorities were routinely blocked from participating in the electoral system, and Jews were no exception.
As Jews assimilated into American society, Jewish Americans, who vote at higher rates than many other groups, quickly moved from being the victims of voter suppression to leading the fight to ensure voting rights for all. “For many Jewish immigrants, voting was tremendously exciting, because they came from countries where they couldn’t vote,” says Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “As a Jew, you always wanted to vote. It was an obligation.”
In particular, Jews played a key role when it came to securing the vote for African Americans. Jewish activists Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner were murdered in Mississippi in 1964, alongside African American activist James Chaney, while working to register African Americans to vote. Civil rights lawyer Morris B. Abram championed “one voter, one vote” and battled voter suppression in Georgia for 14 years, eventually convincing the Supreme Court to strike down a state law that disenfranchised urban black voters in primary elections. Jews were instrumental in helping President Lyndon Johnson push through the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism in Washington, DC. One provision of the law—Section 5—required states and localities with a history of racial discrimination to get approval from the federal government to enact any changes to their voting laws.
Section 5 was envisioned as a temporary measure, but Congress reauthorized the provision four times with overwhelming bipartisan support, amid widespread evidence that the problem had not gone away: States with a history of discrimination were still regularly attempting to adopt measures the Justice Department ruled suspect. In 2006, Congress voted 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House to extend the entire act until 2031, and President George W. Bush signed it into law.
But a sea change occurred in 2013 when the Supreme Court stepped in to rule in the landmark case Shelby County v. Holder, issuing a 5-4 decision that effectively invalidated Section 5. This led to a surge in new state laws that, among other things, have purged voter rolls, limited same-day voter registration, reduced or eliminated early voting, adopted restrictive voter ID requirements, limited the number of polling stations in areas with large minority populations, cut polling hours and made it more difficult or impossible for convicted felons to regain their right to vote. Since Shelby took effect in 2013, “The lid has been lifted. Voter suppression actions are popping up every day,” says Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, a nonpartisan public policy and law institute that was founded in 1995 by the family and former law clerks of Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan. Voting rights advocates such as Weiser say Shelby has made it more difficult to overcome measures whose practical effect is to limit minority groups’ access to the electoral process.
Out of sight of most American Jews, a change also occurred in the Jewish community. As the nation became more polarized and political conservatism gained a stronger foothold, some prominent Jews joined the campaign to increase restrictions on voting rights in the name of voter fraud prevention. One man in particular has been leading the charge.
A former stockbroker and financial adviser, Edward Blum ran as a Republican for a congressional seat in a heavily Democratic district in Houston, Texas in 1992. Blum lost, but he launched a legal battle against the gerrymandering of his district, which was cut in a zigzag pattern to maximize minority representation, thus favoring Democratic candidates. After a lengthy appeals process, the case went to the Supreme Court, which ordered Texas to redraw the district.
But Blum did not return to politics. Instead, in 2005 he set up the Project on Fair Representation, a nonprofit committed to sponsoring litigation that challenges racial and ethnic classifications and preferences in state and federal courts. In 2010, he initiated the case that would become Shelby County v. Holder, persuading the county attorney of Shelby County, Alabama, to bring a suit challenging the federal preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act. While Blum is not a lawyer, Shelby was the product of his tireless legal pressure; The New York Times once described him as a “one-man legal factory.”
Blum, now 66 and living in Michigan, is currently in the news as the activist behind the lawsuit pending against Harvard University that alleges discrimination against Asian Americans—a case that, if it reaches a sympathetic Supreme Court, could lead to the end of affirmative action in higher education. But the Harvard case is only the latest of more than 20 lawsuits that Blum, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has set in motion; all have a common theme: opposing preferences for minority groups, which, he believes, discriminate against white Americans and block progress toward a “post-racial” America. “Most Americans don’t want race to be part of your application to college,” Blum told The New York Times in a 2017 interview. “They don’t want the police to use race as a profiling tool to prevent crime. They don’t want prosecutors to use race in the makeup of a jury. Your race and your ethnicity should not be something used to help you or harm you in your life’s endeavors.” In this vision, which Blum describes as a “color-blind” America, protections for African-American voters only create counter-discrimination.
At times, Blum has drawn connections between his Jewish identity and his legal actions. In his case against Harvard, for example, Blum has compared the school’s alleged discrimination against Asian-American applicants to its practice decades ago of imposing quotas on Jewish students. He also seeks to refute criticisms that he is trying to restore white privilege by invoking his family’s own history as victims of anti-Semitism. His father, a traveling salesman, encountered hotels that didn’t allow Jews. The synagogue his family attended in Orlando, Florida, received bomb threats in the 1950s and 1960s.
In interviews, Blum has sought to make clear that none of his work is guided by anything other than a desire for a level playing field, free of any racial considerations. “Groups like mine are not looking for Donald Trump-type supporters,” he told Mother Jones in 2016. “We are looking for people who have honest, level-headed opinions about equal representation. We reject people who are anti-immigrant. We reject people who are anti-Muslim. We reject people who have an antithetical view of American civil rights laws.”
Voting rights activists say that Blum has visibly changed the landscape, at least on voter access. Although Blum has distanced himself from Trump, the issue became even more politically charged in 2016, when then-candidate Trump claimed the election was rigged against him. After he won, he declared that millions of illegal immigrants accounted for Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory and established a short-lived election integrity commission. During the run-up to the 2018 midterms, the issue flared on a daily basis, with Trump and other Republicans pushing their belief in the existence of widespread voter fraud, and Democrats accusing Republicans of equally widespread voter suppression.
The most prominently covered example was the gubernatorial election in Georgia, where Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams—seeking to become the nation’s first black female governor—accused her opponent Brian Kemp, the Republican secretary of state, of abusing his authority by introducing a variety of measures aiming to limit the impact of minorities on the election, including one that required voters to present a government ID to match the exact name on their voter registration card. (Courts blocked several of these measures before the 2018 midterms.) Other high-profile examples cited by voting rights advocates were a new measure in North Dakota requiring voters to have identification that showed a street address (which would make voting impossible for many Native Americans who live on reservations and only have P.O. boxes) and the decision in heavily Hispanic Dodge City, Kansas to move the only voting place from the city center to a less accessible location two and a half miles away.
While Blum was laying the legal groundwork to roll back civil rights era voting protections, a different rationale for tightening voter access was gaining traction in conservative and Republican circles: the argument that access to voting is, in fact, too easy.
Conservative critiques of voter-access initiatives such as early voting, online voting and same-day voter registration have been around for a while. They’ve generally been couched in terms of fraud prevention, good governance and protecting the integrity of the voting franchise. In recent years, though, this relatively genteel vocabulary has lost ground to a harder-edged appeal in which conservative pundits stoke fears of massive voter fraud, often attributed to a flood of illegal immigrants or criminals who they say threaten America’s well-being.
Conservative criticisms of voter-access initiatives are generally couched in terms of fraud prevention, good governance and protecting the integrity of the voting franchise.
Meanwhile, a growing chorus of Jewish conservatives has been spreading the voter fraud message. The Jewish radio talk show host Mark Levin—whose programs reach up to 10 million on-air and online listeners a week—is such a voice. In his 2013 book The Liberty Amendments, he called for a constitutional amendment banning early voting and same-day registration. Levin also enthusiastically pressed the theme that liberals who worried about voter access were using civil rights rhetoric out of wholly cynical motives. In one broadcast, Levin argued, “I’m disgusted with ethnic front groups and liberal politicians who are promoting fraud, attacking our franchise, our right to vote and the legitimacy of our republic! And I’m sick and tired of them wrapping themselves in a civil rights movement when it’s we who should be wrapping ourselves in a civil rights movement! Only people who are allowed to vote should vote, and they should vote once!”
Other conservatives—including Jewish ones—have taken this idea a step further, arguing that attempts to protect black voters from interference are themselves examples of liberal condescension toward African Americans—and thus of racism. Ami Horowitz, a documentary filmmaker based in New York, has made a name for himself as a conservative provocateur, famous for vox-pop style videos that purport to expose liberal hypocrisies. Raised in California, Horowitz says he became aware of voter fraud shortly after his father’s death eight years ago. At his polling station, Horowitz says he found that his late father’s name was still on the voter rolls with a checkmark indicating someone had voted under his name. “When I asked how that could be, they just shrugged their shoulders,” he says, describing the voting officials’ reaction. “And all this is possible because California does not require an ID to vote.”
Horowitz reacted to this experience by producing a four-minute video in his trademark style, starring himself as a curious interviewer asking students at the University of California at Berkeley whether voter ID laws suppress voting rights. The respondents explain that African-American voters are likely not to have government-issued ID cards, or have difficulty getting to the department of motor vehicles to get identification, or do not have access to the internet to order one online. Cut to the streets of East Harlem. Horowitz asks black residents about these assertions. “Why would they think we don’t have ID?” responds one woman. All those interviewed say they would have no problem showing their ID at the polling station. The implication of his video, though not spelled out directly, is clear: Claims that voter ID requirements disenfranchise African-American voters come from white liberals, not from black voters themselves.
“It’s extremely racist to say that black people and minorities don’t have the ability to vote,” says Horowitz. “This is condescending and racist.” More than 2.5 million people have viewed the video. According to Horowitz, its real point is that cultivating a sense of victimhood in African Americans is what has prevented them from being successful in American society. Liberal complaints about voter ID requirements, he argues, are just one example of this victimization. “Victimhood will keep you down,” he says. “In the world’s history there’s no other group that had the right to feel as a victim more than the Jews. But Jews didn’t fall into the trap of feeling like victims.”
Also spreading the message about the dangers of voter fraud is nationally syndicated radio talk show host and columnist Dennis Prager, a prolific author, most recently of The Rational Bible: Exodus. He is also the founder of Prager University, which is not a school but a website that distributes five-minute animated videos, such as Horowitz’s, that promote right-wing positions disseminated through sophisticated targeted advertising campaigns. The site claims more than 1.7 billion views. In one clip, dramatic music builds in the background while a voice-over says, “The left claims: Requiring a valid ID to vote is racist…But in reality, valid ID is currently required for driving a vehicle, getting on an airplane, purchasing alcohol, opening a bank account.” Does the left really believe voter ID laws are racist, the video asks, “or do they just want more illegals voting in elections?”
Prager has used his Jewish bona fides to make this same point. “Imagine if some Democratic politician had announced that demanding a photo ID at the voting booth was an attempt to keep Jewish Americans from voting,” Prager wrote on his website in 2011. “No one would understand what the person was talking about. But why not? Jews vote almost as lopsidedly Democrat as do blacks. So why weren’t Jews included in liberal objections to voter ID laws? We all know the answer. Jews are generally considered intelligent and therefore no one would assume that obtaining a photo ID was demanding too much of even poor Jews (yes, there are poor Jews).”
Even many Jewish conservatives who have not taken this on as a banner issue share this point of view. At a panel at a conference held by the conservative Young America Foundation earlier this year, former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro said he supports voter ID initiatives. “I do not think that voter ID policy is discriminatory,” he says. “If I have to show an ID to buy alcohol, it seems to me that I should have to show an ID in order to vote. This does not seem like a huge burden on me.” Jewish radio talk show host Michael Medved, whose three-hour daily show is aired on hundreds of stations, expressed a similar view in a January 2014 column. “Leftist judges and Democratic activists increasingly embrace the ludicrous idea that requiring voters to show picture ID constitutes a form of unconstitutional racism,” he wrote. “This is absurd and groundless: The Constitution explicitly guarantees a right to bear arms, but liberals never question background checks or photo identification before you get guns. If it’s racist to require ID when you vote, isn’t it also racist to require ID when you cash a check or get on a plane?”
widespread voting fraud is a myth. Between 2000 and 2014 there were only 35 total credible accusations affecting a few hundred ballots at most.
Other Jewish Republican figures believe voter fraud is an isssue that should not be ignored, but are less gung ho. “It is beyond logic to say that in a country in which 130 million votes are cast, that there is not voter fraud,” Commentary editor John Podhoretz argued on a panel on MSNBC in September of 2017. “We know as a matter of statistics that one percent of votes are either spoiled, false or wrongly cast, or potentially fraudulent. It may be to clean these rolls and go after voter fraud the way they’re going at it is draconian and intended to benefit one side and one side only. That doesn’t mean this is not an issue.” Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary to President George W. Bush, is dismissive of the idea that illegal voting is a huge problem, and says President Trump’s April remarks in California [“In many places, like California,” said Trump, “the same person votes many times. You probably heard about that. They always like to say ‘oh that’s a conspiracy theory.’ Not a conspiracy theory, folks. Millions and millions of people.”] have “no basis in fact.” Still, Fleischer adds, it’s “just common sense” to purge voter rolls from time to time in the interests of good government, though in a place like Georgia, “you touch voter rolls and people think of voter suppression right away. The perception that there was voter suppression was absolutely true of the Jim Crow era, and of the 1960s, but times have changed.”
Voting rights advocates say the conservative critique of voting rights initiatives rests on several false arguments. Contrary to their claims, many poor and minority voters actually do have trouble obtaining ID, they say, and conversely, attempts to combat election “fraud”—with measures such as cutting polling hours—make it harder still for them to vote. “It’s a two-pronged attack,” says Weiser. “One argument scratches the other’s back, and you need both to sustain the battle against voting rights.”
Moreover, the Brennan Center says that widespread voting fraud is a myth. A study conducted by the center after the 2016 elections found that voting by non-citizens in the jurisdictions with the largest numbers of undocumented residents amounted to no more than 0.0001 percent. This finding is supported by the research of Justin Levitt, a professor of constitutional law and democracy at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who studies voter impersonation. Between 2000 and 2014, he found only 35 total credible accusations affecting a few hundred ballots at most. “It just really doesn’t happen a lot,” says Levitt, a former Justice Department official, who adds that sending people to polling stations in order to pretend they are someone else is a “stupid technique” for tampering with elections. “You’re more likely to walk and get struck by lightning than to have someone walk into the polls and pretend to be someone else.” For any party trying to commit voter fraud, this would be one of the least efficient ways of swaying the vote.
Conservatives usually refer to another source, the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank. “Preventing, deterring, and prosecuting election fraud is essential to protecting the integrity of our voting process,” says the foundation website, which features an Election Fraud Database “intended to demonstrate the many ways in which fraud is committed.” The database lists 1,165 instances of illegal voting activity since 1982, mapped state by state, resulting in 1,011 convictions. “Over a span of decades, even this compilation makes fraud relatively rare,” says Levitt. Since 2000, he says, there have been about 1.4 billion ballots cast in regularly scheduled federal and state primary and general elections alone.
The Heritage Foundation database includes many types of fraud or misconduct, not just voter ID fraud. Incidents include vote buying, duplicate voting, fraud using absentee ballots, fraud by poll workers or other insiders. “These happen, though they happen less frequently now. Federal law put in more protections in 2002,” says Levitt. He points out that stricter voter ID rules would not prevent these kinds of fraud. “Indeed, each of these things requires a different policy solution. Adding up all these different kinds of wrongdoing is kind of like adding up all the different ways that people get sick or injured.”
The reality is that restrictions on voting disproportionately affect people of color, and quite significantly have had a very clear impact.
Voting rights activists also say that racism remains a factor in the conservative position on voter fraud. The Brennan Center’s Wendy Weiser argues that much of the focus on voter fraud activity is “racially tinged,” pointing to a history of comments made by activists and lawmakers responsible for the measures, as well as court rulings that have condemned these actions as intended to suppress minority votes. Rabbi David Saperstein, a senior advisor for policy at the Union for Reform Judaism who was Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom during the Obama administration, is less sure. “It’s impossible to know what these things are driven by, whether they’re driven by racism or partisan passions,” he says. But “the reality is that they disproportionately affect people of color, and quite significantly have had a very clear impact.”
Is the voter suppression versus voter fraud dichotomy a Jewish issue? “It’s a political and legal issue that has nothing to do with faith,” says Ari Fleischer, adding that the “the Jewish tradition demands respect for the right to vote and for following the rule of law. This issue involves both.”
Saperstein views it differently. To Jews, he says, voting is “an issue of fundamental rights. In all concepts of Western civilization, it’s rooted in the perception that every human being has the inherent dignity of having been created in the image of the divine.”
Either way, the majority of American Jews remain sympathetic to the fight to preserve voting rights, says Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the director of the Reform movement’s RAC—the organization founded in 1961 that played a leading role in the Civil Rights movement. He says that Jews across the political spectrum were enthusiastic about his organization’s efforts to reach 100,000 citizens before the midterms to make sure they could vote. Historian Jonathan Sarna agrees: He views Jews who are engaging in attempts to restrict voting as a very small minority. “Even many Jews who voted Republican promote robust voting on the part of an engaged citizenry.”
In fact, the Republican Party’s sharp turn toward a more restrictive voting policy is one of the factors that has led at least one Jewish Republican to abandon the party. In September, Seth Klarman, one of the largest donors to the Republican Party in New England, switched his allegiance to the Democratic Party, saying, among other things, that he “has been alarmed by voter suppression.” But don’t expect a mass defection of Republican Jews. Voter fraud, like a lot of issues in the Jewish community, says Fleischer, “probably leans three to one.”
By Sarah Breger, Nadine Epstein, Nathan Guttman, Anis Modi & Amy E. Schwartz