Rabbi Nosanchuk – Testimony to Field Hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee – Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights

Testimony to Field Hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee –  Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights

Robert A. Nosanchuk, Monday, May 7, 2012

My name is Robert Nosanchuk, I am a U.S. citizen, resident of Ohio, and the Senior Rabbi of the Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, a leading institution of Reform Judaism, and of the congregations of Greater Cleveland. In 1964, my predecessor Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld’s determination to see equality and fairness applied in our U.S. voting system led him to the State of Mississippi where opponents to voting rights beat him with a tire iron but did not subdue his drive to pursue equality and justice in the realm of voting rights for all Americans. It has now nearly been five decades since the Freedom Summer in Mississippi and sadly, we cannot take for granted our leaders support of these standards fought for in the civil rights movement. Indeed, because of pending legislation, Ohio citizens face the difficult prospect of being polarized one against another in terms of our access to the election system and the validity of our votes!

When former Ohio Representative Robert Mecklenborg proposed House Bill 194, he stated in the press last March that the legislation was necessary “to combat voter fraud and the perception of fraud.” Indeed combating fraud is a legitimate pursuit if such fraud exists. Certainly we’d all agree that elections that are freer of fraud are more consistent with our American ideals and the dictates of our various faiths as they pertain to following societal laws.

Given the resources of his office, Representative Mecklenborg had the opportunity to research, to explain, to back up his claims and show Ohio’s citizenry his evidence of such fraud and how his proposals would combat the voter fraud he alleged. But he did neither.

Rather he proposed legislation that I believe suppresses voter turnout by making it appear to be fraudulent or improper for poll workers to show those who’ve mistakenly come to the wrong polling house how to find their official polling station on election day.

Rep. Mecklenborg further proposed that placing on a provisional ballot the date in the box where you were supposed to put your signature, or your signature in the box where you are supposed to put the date is somehow an act of fraud and not merely a typographical error. He further supported legislation that would limit voting rights to those who have a valid passport or current driver’s license, even though current law allows Ohio citizens who have neither of these photo ID’s to show any one of a dozen personal documents to show poll workers they truly live in the home the registrars say they live.

In an interview with the press, he simply speculated: “I believe it happens, but it’s proving a negative and it’s impossible to prove a negative,” then following with his own question, “How do you prove that fraud doesn’t exist there?” Seeing the wide-ranging nature of the bill he proposed, and his complete lack of proof that there is cause warranted for such legislation demonstrates that his commitment to bringing a measure of integrity to our election system is a false or at the very least empty commitment.

Rather I believe that Ohio House Bill 194 and its companion H.B. 159 are proposed laws intended to limit the access specific groups of individuals in our society have to have their vote counted. The basis of H.B. 194 is speculative at best, and shows an indifference to the value that undergirds every citizen of every faith and background’s commitment to vote in the first place – the idea that their vote and our participation in the electoral and democratic system matters.

That is in one of the reasons that dozens of my congregants joined the petition drive last summer which sought to repeal H.B. 194’s implementation. We felt that: evidence of voter fraud was necessary to place new restrictions and regulations on our election system, and that H.B. 194 would errantly pursue voter fraud while enacting into law a disturbing array of unfair practices.

These unfair practices under H.B. 194 include:

  • Restrictions on in-person/absentee voting hours
  • Limits on in-person/absentee voting locations to county Board of Election offices
  • Prohibitions on poll workers directing errant voters to the correct polling location and on counties sending unsolicited absentee ballot applications to registered voters.

In addition, H.B. 159 would require anyone voting at the polls to bring a driver’s license, passport or other government-issued identification card that shows the person’s current address and contains a photo, in effect disallowing the current system which allows our current utility bills, bank statements, paychecks or government documents with a current name and address as proof of identification.

Am I expected to believe that our leaders are not aware: who in our society has difficulty at a polling place producing a valid passport or a driver’s license with a current address? Research shows it is most difficult for low-income individuals, senior citizens, racial and ethnic minority voters, and voters with disabilities.

These groups in our society, members of my community who have dutifully brought their utility bills, bank statements, paychecks and other government documents to polling places, often have trouble getting government-issued photo ID or are economically challenged when it comes to the financial commitment to keep such photo ID’s updated. Research shows there are more than 21 million Americans – who do not have government-issued photo identification. As many as 25% of African American citizens of voting age do not have and 18% of Americans over 65 do not have it.

The median age of the congregants at my large synagogue in Cleveland sixty-six which leads me to believe that hundreds of my community members are potentially at risk of being disqualified to vote, because they no longer travel out of the country (needing a passport), drive independently (needing a valid license) or are living with limited income (and thus cannot afford to regularly update these documents.)

Additionally, I am disturbed that the legislation currently proposed in Ohio eliminates the requirement that poll workers direct voters to the correct precinct; Shortens early voting and makes it illegal to have Sunday voting. Shortens the time span to vote absentee, Eliminates satellite locations for early voting; And increases size of our voting precincts: including more consolidation in cities than in rural areas.

I am a rabbi, a faith and community leader in the Jewish community. So I see this legislation and its inordinate number of restrictions on voting in the context of the value expressed in Deuteronomy 16:20 Tzedek! Tzedek Tirdof! Justice, justice shall you pursue!

I believe that the value of justice is repeated twice in the Bible as an admonishment to every one of us to judge with justice. In other words, we must make tzedek (“justice”) the guiding value by which we evaluate the laws of conduct in our democratic society. I know that when I focus my attention on justice and fairness, I am outraged at bills which would unfairly target minorities, elderly and poor individuals and others who share my commitment and my synagogue’s legacy of acting to make civil rights, human rights and voting rights the cornerstones of our public and social activism.

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof. Justice, justice shall you pursue -Deuteronomy 16:20

I commend your committee to pursue tzedek (“justice”) and ask yourselves if you discern it to be present in the strictures on voting rights proposed for Ohioans.

I ask you to consider that tzedek (“justice”) is not a one-size-fits-all concept. We are each called upon to look to our own moral fiber and our diverse backgrounds to define this concept. For history has shown that even when societies pursue it as their highest aim, there is no uniformity of views and thus it is an equal commitment to justice that inspires and allows every citizen to speak his mind and vote her conscience.

To me, tzedek (“justice”) can mean for us in Ohio and the U.S. unity for the pursuit of equality, righteousness and freedom, on election day and every day.

For the sake of fairness, equal access, and what I hope to be your firm commitment to the civil rights and just treatment of all U.S. citizens, I urge you to investigate closely and use every energy in your power to combat these dangerous proposals in Ohio, which suppress votes and are no less discriminatory than the systems and practices our nation tried to rid itself of five decades ago.

I thank each of you for the opportunity to share this testimony for the record of your critical work in the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil and Human Rights.