Shmuly Yanklowitz

Faith leaders must help prevent another Jan. 6

To help instill confidence in the fairness of US elections, nothing beats a visit to the vote-counting facility where it happens
(Wikimedia Commons)
(Wikimedia Commons)

The job of a religious leader contains a huge variety of functions. For me and my rabbinic colleagues, we’re there for everything from birth celebrations to bar mitzvahs to weddings to deaths and funerals. At certain times in history, though, clergy play, for better or for worse, an outsized role in political life.

On one hand, we can look at the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. At the same time, we must consider what happens when the intervention of religious leaders in politics goes wrong, such as the 1930s rise of the antisemitic Michigan radio preacher Father Charles Coughlin.

Faith leaders have always allowed their views and values to inform their messages to their congregations, and that isn’t going away any time soon. But my colleagues and I have agreed that there is one layup issue for which all religious figures ought to have a united front for the benefit of our state and nation: election integrity.

When I think back to Jan. 6, 2021, I wonder just how much more peaceful things could have been if more religious leaders across America had spoken out against misplaced mistrust and falsely messianic thinking.

To help heal the completely unnecessary rift in our body politic, we should be educating our community members to have confidence in the fairness of our elections. But my peers and I wondered: How can we be equipped to effectively do that?

In a coalition, we recently met with the Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, to get an up-close understanding of how our elections work. Maricopa County is the fourth-largest county in America and is a county that has been widely featured throughout national media given its unique political contentiousness.

Arizona famously has a spotlight on it because of its long history of having a large number of mail-in ballots, about 80%! While those of us who have voted in Arizona many times are accustomed to our convenient way of doing things, the nation was of course stunned in 2020 to see how long it took for all the mail-in ballots to be counted. For this reason, it’s imperative that people understand exactly what happens during this process that takes time to execute properly.

Richer took us on an hour-long tour at the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office to teach us all about how our vote-tabulation machines work and how signatures are verified in a way that respects and protects both political parties. The tens of millions in the budget spent to run our elections, we learned, gives us a process we can count on.

Richer, himself a Republican, showed us how in this bi-partisan process there are two people, from different political parties, in the facility of any room where ballots are processed. The main tabulation room where the ballots are counted by machine, he informed us, is live-streamed 24/7/365.

We learned about how poll watchers and poll workers are trained, and we were told how a person needs a badge to get entry to the facility room, and no one is ever allowed to go in by themself. The volunteers must have a bipartisan committee of Democrats and Republicans coming in to look at the ballots and make sure they are kosher. These experts are trained by the same team that teaches the FBI to analyze signatures. We learned that, if there are any potential problems at all identified with the validity of a signature, the voter must be contacted, and the issue must be resolved before they count it.

It is one thing to accept that our elections are fair because of our faith in how the American system works, but being taken inside, with full transparency, equipped us not just to tell our communities that the elections are up to snuff, but to tell them what we saw with our own eyes and heard from our own officials.

Having gone inside the belly of the beast of our democracy, I walked out feeling an immense sense of responsibility. The Maricopa County Recorder had a huge ask of all of us, that we ensure that all our faith leaders continue to express how important it is to have trust in the transparency of our elections, that we make sure the community knows that our elections are fair, safe and monitored—and that we can back that claim up with our eye-witness experience.

(Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, with Shmuly Yanklowitz and Eddie Chavez Calderon. Photo: Shmuly Yanklowitz)

It’s perfectly reasonable, he said, for people to be skeptical of government workers. But people pick their faith leaders because they’re people they have deemed trustworthy. In 2020, we saw how the denial of a fair election can lead to violence, and to political turmoil that continues to this day.

While I, and my colleagues in all religious communities, didn’t become clergy because we were primarily interested in protecting democracy, we must all recognize that ensuring everyone can trust that their voice will be heard is a moral issue. It’s a moral issue because people should have the confidence to vote for their values knowing their voices count, and it’s a moral issue because baseless divisions within our community are an unnecessary barrier to us being the city, state, and nation that we ought to be. If American democracy cannot be trusted, the risks posed to this country and globally would be enormous.

Three years on from the 2021 insurrection, I’d encourage all faith leaders to take a tour within their own county and learn the details of how our elections are protected and to spread the word to build trust in our systems. Our commitment to democracy is a solemn commitment, and it’s what has ensured the religious freedoms that we hold so dearly. Heading into this election year, it’s crucial for all of us to remember that, regardless of whether our preferred party or candidate wins, it is crucial that we honor these systems that keep our society free and just.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.