Jewish Groups Wary of Georgia Voting Bills

Jewish Groups Wary of Georgia Voting Bills

If counties have the option to schedule weekend early voting only on Saturdays, observant Jews could be left without an option.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Potential new voting laws could affect Jews that observe Shabbat,
Potential new voting laws could affect Jews that observe Shabbat,

Depending on where they live, the ability of Sabbath-observant Jews in Georgia to cast their ballots on Sundays during early, in-person voting may be imperiled by legislation now before the General Assembly.

In the aftermath of the 2020 general election, the Republican-controlled state House and Senate are considering measures that would limit absentee voting, restrict the use of ballot drop boxes, alter the days and hours of voting, and change other regulations.

One provision of a bill passed 97-72 by the House on Monday would require counties to offer two days of early voting on weekends, but counties would have the option to schedule those on consecutive Saturdays, or on a Sunday and the following Saturday. House Bill 531 now goes to the Senate, which is developing its own voting bill. The legislature is scheduled to adjourn March 31.

The only Jewish member of the General Assembly, state Rep. Mike Wilensky, a Democrat from Dunwoody who represents the 79th District, voted against the House bill. In a floor speech before the vote, Wilensky said that if a county chooses to schedule early voting on consecutive Saturdays, “This will be extremely painful to religious Jewish voters in Georgia. Saturday is our day of rest and most religious Jewish people cannot do many things on Saturday, including voting. So this would cause religious Jewish people to not have the ability to vote on weekends at all.”

Before the House vote, Wilensky told the AJT, “None of the changes in this voting bill makes voting more secure; it only makes voting more difficult. I see no necessity for this bill and I am 100 percent against it.”

Democratic Rep. Mike Wilensky, the only Jewish member of the legislature, warned that the bill “would cause religious Jewish people to not have the ability to vote on weekends at all.”

The second-ranking House member, Speaker Pro Tem Rep. Jan Jones, a Republican from Milton who represents the 47th district, said that only 16 of Georgia’s 159 counties [including some in metro Atlanta] offered Sunday voting before November’s general election and six did so before January’s U.S. Senate runoffs. Opponents of the bill said that tens of thousands of Georgians took advantage of Sunday voting where it was available.

Jones backed the bill but acknowledged the religious issue. “I’m sympathetic to our practicing Jewish and Seventh-day Adventist friends, who do not vote on their Sabbath, on Saturday. The bill accommodates them by allowing for a Sunday early voting day, in the counties that choose to offer it,” she said during debate.

A coalition of Jewish communal organizations, activists, synagogues and clergy see that accommodation as inadequate. A letter released Monday, in advance of the House vote, expressed “concern and dismay” about the bill, citing, in particular, the weekend voting issue.

The letter, coordinated by the Jewish Community Relations Council and bearing more than 110 signatures, said: “By allowing advance voting on Saturdays, but not on Sundays, the General Assembly would impose a substantial burden on Jewish Georgians who observe the Jewish Sabbath and are not permitted by their religious practice to vote by writing or using a mechanical device . . . By limiting voting access in a manner that disproportionately impacts the Jewish community, the State of Georgia will create substantial burdens and potential disenfranchisement for portions of our community.”

Republican Rep. Jan Jones said that the bill accommodated observant Jews “by allowing for a Sunday early voting day, in the counties that choose to offer it.”

The coalition suggested that Jews would be unintended victims of legislation aimed elsewhere. “The burden on Jewish Georgians cannot be justified by any legitimate reason put forth by the General Assembly. Restricting advance voting to one day of the weekend does not provide any additional security or integrity to the conduct of elections in Georgia, the purported reason for election bills put forward this year by the General Assembly,” the letter said. “Rather, it is widely suspected that the restriction on Sunday advance voting is meant to curtail Black voters from participating in ‘Souls to the Polls’ voter drives following Sunday morning church services.”

The leaders of communal organizations that signed the letter included: Eric Robbins, CEO and president, Jewish Federation of Great Atlanta; Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal, president, Atlanta Rabbinical Association; Allison Padilla-Goodman, vice president, Southern division, Anti-Defamation League; Dov Wilker, regional director, American Jewish Committee; Harold Kirtz, president, JCRC-Atlanta; Terri Bonoff, CEO, Jewish Family & Career Services; Nancy Weissmann, executive director, Jewish Interest Free Loan of Atlanta; and Sherry Frank, president, National Council of Jewish Women, Atlanta section.

The rabbis included: Joshua Heller, Congregation B’nai Torah; Joshua Lesser, Congregation Bet Haverim; Mark Zimmerman, Congregation Beth Shalom; Lauren Henderson, Congregation Or Hadash; Michael Bernstein, Congregation Gesher L’Torah; Jesse Charyn, Temple Beth David; Alexandria Shuval-Weiner, Temple Beth Tikvah; Spike Anderson, Temple Emanu-El; Ari Kaiman, Congregation Shearith Israel; Ron Segal, Temple Sinai; Peter Berg, The Temple; and Brian Glusman, Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta.

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