Will We Vote by Mail Because of the Virus?

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1. Fighting for mail-in voting

It’s April and America is still shut down. Stay-at-home guidance and social distancing rules have left the public sphere deserted, waiting for the pandemic to die down and for life to gradually return to something that resembles normalcy.

And for many Americans, it will be months, not weeks, before they’ll be able to put this dark episode behind them. This means that there is a real concern that voting in November will be a complicated task.

Will Americans feel safe enough to stand in crowded lines at the polling stations in November? Can anyone predict what November will look like? Will we be over it all, or in the midst of the second round of outbreaks?

That’s where mail-in voting becomes crucial.

If people don’t feel safe going to the polling station, or if large gatherings and close contact are still deemed dangerous, why not allow all voters to fulfill their civic duty through the mail?

At least one Jewish group has taken on this challenge. The American Jewish Congress is calling on supporters to sign a petition urging Congress to pass a national vote-by-mail law that will allow every citizen to mail their ballot. “Without emergency ballot procedures and voting options, many voters risk being left disenfranchised this November. We cannot let that happen,” the group said.

Currently, only a handful of states permit mail-in voting for everyone. Most others limit it to special circumstances, or for those who are out of state, or out of the U.S. on election day.

President Donald Trump has been clear about his opposition to voting by mail, claiming it will lead to massive fraud. (His administration has also refused to provide adequate funding for the U.S. Postal Service, a critical part of any mail-in voting plan.) The Brennan Center for Justice, which researches election fraud, has found Trump’s claim baseless.

Allowing mail-in voting for all is important for every American at this time, but the Jewish community may have a bigger stake in it: Jewish voter turnout is higher than average and the community will likely want to keep these numbers—which are part of what makes Jewish Americans an important constituency—high. American Jews will have more barriers to voting during this pandemic: They are older than average, and many of them live in the New York area, which has been among the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak, or in other metropolitan areas impacted by the pandemic. 

The chances of passing a national vote-by-mail law are slim. But raising the issue can increase pressure on the states to exhibit more flexibility and expand no-excuse absentee ballots to all.

2. When Trump gets faith leaders on the line—who’s there?

On Friday, Trump held another conference call with faith leaders to discuss the battle against the spread of coronavirus, the steps taken by his administration to revive the economy and the role of faith groups in helping with these efforts.

Trump, according to the White House official readout, “expressed his eagerness to get churches, synagogues, mosques and all houses of worship back open as soon possible.” (This eagerness did not seem to come across a day later when during his daily briefing Trump seemed to question whether social distancing will be kept in mosques and complained that “the Christian faith is treated very differently than it once was, and I think it’s treated very unfairly.”)

Who represented the American Jewish community on this call?

According to a list provided by the White House, there were three Jewish participants: Eric Fingerhut, president of the Jewish Federations of North America, an umbrella group representing federations nationwide; Rabbi Marvin Hier, who heads the Simon Wiesenthal Center (and delivered a prayer in Trump’s inauguration,) and Rabbi Abba Cohen of Agudath Israel of North America. 

3. Biden gets an endorsement from the left

With endorsements of Joe Biden pouring in from all walks of the Democratic Party, one stood out last week. It was from the left-leaning pro-Israel lobby J Street.

On the one hand, this sounds like a no-brainer. Who else would a pro-peace, pro-two-state solution advocacy group endorse? Trump?

But it is still noteworthy. After all, on many issues relating to U.S.-Israel relations, J Street and its supporters hold views closer to those of Bernie Sanders (who spoke at their latest conference) than those of Joe Biden (a regular at AIPAC confabs). Just this year, Biden came out forcefully against the idea, expressed by Sanders and other Democrats and supported by J Street, of conditioning aid to Israel on its policies regarding the Palestinian issue.

Also noteworthy was the fact that Biden warmly accepted the endorsement, stating that “I share with J Street’s membership an unyielding dedication to the survival and security of Israel, and an equal commitment to creating a future of peace and opportunity for Israeli and Palestinian children alike.”

Does this mean that Biden has taken a turn to the left?

Not really. If anything, it means that Biden recognizes where his party stands, that he understands that the two-state solution is on life support and that he realizes that association with J Street is no longer toxic in pro-Israel circles.

4. …and then he gets bashed from the Right

The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) put out a mailer Sunday, titled: “Anti-Israel Joe Biden.”

Their main claim: Biden is adopting the views of Bernie Sanders, the “squad,” and J Street, not to mention him being a partner to Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.

Claims of this kind are par for the course in a political campaign and will be hashed out in future debates, ads and meetings with Jewish voters in the run-up to the November elections.

What is interesting is the RJC’s ability to shift from focusing on Sanders and his circle as the source of alleged anti-Israel sentiments in the Democratic Party, to focusing on Biden, with pretty much the same set of arguments, despite the differences between Biden and Sanders on Israel.

Here are the outlines of this debate, as it played out immediately after the RJC statement came out:

Democratic strategist Aaron Keyak tweeted:

“This is just another reminder that all the hand wringing from the right during the Democratic primary over Israel was disingenuous to say the least. Republicans were going to call the Democratic nominee anti-Israel regardless of who it was.”

On the Republican side, RJC’s executive director tweeted:

“JStreet/Bernie/Obama-Biden vs @realDonaldTrump the most pro-Israel president in history. I like that contrast heading into the Fall.”

5. Jewish campaigning in the age of pandemic

Experts keep promising that we will eventually wake up to a “new normal” once the pandemic subsides.

There are many questions that should be considered by those going after the Jewish vote in a post-coronavirus America, and we’ll try to touch on them in the coming weeks. Here’s one:

Among American Jewish communities, Orthodox Jews have been the hardest hit by COVID-19. They also constitute Trump’s strongest support base amid Jewish voters. Republican messaging to these voters was supposed to focus on Trump’s positions on Israel and his actions to lower the wall separating church and state (in education funding and in politicking from the pulpit.) Are these still the issues Orthodox Jewish voters will care about in November, or should those seeking their vote focus on the pandemic response?

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