A classic commentary on the Biblical story of creation insists that all of humanity is descended from the very first earthling, “so that no one can say my original ancestor was greater than yours.” The interpretation emerges from Jewish tradition (Sanhedrin 4:5), but it is an observation about the human race, not about any subset of it.
Thomas Jefferson seems to apply this lesson in the majestic language of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Jefferson’s home state, makes the point that “truths” is in the plural and that these truths — human rights, formation and reinvention of government, and security — are included in Jefferson’s formulation. Of them, only one self-evident truth does not make it into the Constitution to become the law of the land: human equality. Slavery and the disenfranchisement of women are the proof.
But in last year’s July 4th message, Kaine lauded President Abraham Lincoln for reclaiming that essential truth; the Gettysburg Address includes the insistence that our nation was “dedicated to the [single] proposition that all men are created equal.” In his way and in his time, Lincoln went on to implement that self-evident truth.
More than 150 years later, we are still trying to protect that self-evident truth, that all people are created equal. Everyone counts. And to be counted in this country means to have the right to vote on the formation and reinvention of government.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed with bipartisan support, but hearings on the Voting Rights Amendment Act, introduced to modernize and enhance sections of the original law struck down by the Supreme Court, have not yet been called by the House Judiciary Committee. The bipartisan VRAA contains commonsense safeguards for states and counties with patterns of discrimination, and it provides for reviews that remove those safeguards when they are no longer needed. The time to move this bill forward is now — not tomorrow, not next month, not next year. That is the mandate of the House Judiciary Committee.
It is hard to imagine any American considering these voting rights protections to be objectionable. Public outcry over discrimination by a sports team owner and a rancher was near-universal. The disenfranchisement of American citizens from this most basic of civil rights ought to demand the same outrage by people of integrity. Yet every day we delay leaves American voters vulnerable, as if we are saying “run your campaigns, but don’t bring your friends to our election.”
The VRAA is likely not the last word on voting rights. But it will preserve that most obvious expression of Lincoln’s precious proposition: government of the people, by the people and for the people.
Rabbi Jack Moline is the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.