A group of three dozen rabbis signed an open letter urging Jews in Missouri to invoke religious beliefs in order to vote absentee during the coronavirus outbreak. Since Missouri makes it difficult to vote in ways other than in person on election day, the argument in the letter could be critical to allowing more people to vote without visiting a polling place during the pandemic.
As of May 6, more than 3.7 million people globally have been infected with the COVID-19 respiratory disease caused by coronavirus, and more than 259,000 have died. In the U.S., the country with the most infections and deaths, more than 1.2 million have tested positive and more than 72,000 have died.
Missouri law allows few ways for someone to vote without going in person on election day. Unlike states with early voting or no-excuse absentee voting, a Missouri voter must swear they meet one of the few allowed reasons for an absentee ballot, such as being out of the jurisdiction on election day, incapacity due to illness or physical disability, employment as an election official, incarceration, or certified participation in an address confidentiality program. The only other allowed reason is “religious belief or practice.”
Although Missouri Governor Mike Parson, who is a member of First Baptist Church in Bolivar, moved the local elections from April to June because of the outbreak, he said he didn’t believe the risk of COVID-19 should be considered a valid reason to obtain an absentee ballot. And Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, whose office is in charge of elections in the state, said he wouldn’t expand such absentee access unless legislators changed the law or courts mandated it.
While some states have delayed elections and expanded mail-in voting options because of coronavirus concerns, Wisconsin held its election on April 7 after courts refused to allow a delay or increased time for mail-in votes that the state hadn’t even yet sent to voters. At least 52 people who voted in person or worked the polls have since tested positive for COVID-19.
As a result of health concerns about in-person voting and refusals by Missouri leaders to adjust the absentee voting options, 36 Jewish leaders joined a letter released by the St. Louis Rabbinical & Cantorial Association, Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, and Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City. In the letter, they argued their religious teachings justify voting by absentee ballot in order to stay home during a pandemic.
The letter notes the Torah teaches “God created mankind in the image of the Divine (Genesis 1:27).” And the letter says the Torah also includes commands “to protect the lives of others,” such as in Leviticus 19:16.
“When the life of any person is in danger, almost all other religious laws become inapplicable,” the letter explained. “Our rabbis teach us that to save one life is to save an entire world, and to destroy one life is to destroy an entire world.”
Thus, the rabbis said that “for these very reasons” they had “recognized the need to forgo all of our in-person religious rituals in the hopes of protecting the lives of those around us.” This included, they added, suspending in-person services, holding virtual services, changing their normal process for funerals, and moving rituals for the important holiday of Passover “exclusively to the home.”
The same religious beliefs that led them to suspend their in-person religious activities would also, the rabbis argued, justify people staying home on election day, therefore qualifying as a religious belief reason for voting via absentee ballot.
“As this pandemic continues, our Jewish teachings, laws, and traditions require us to stay home except in situations where leaving the home is essential to preserving life,” the rabbis wrote. “Wherever else possible, one must do everything in one’s power to do whatever else is needed from the safety and security of one’s own home.”
“We … believe therefore that it is a deeply-held religious belief to remain home on days in which elections are held and that such a belief qualifies one under the Missouri law to vote in any regional, state, or federal election via absentee ballot,” the rabbis added.
For the June 2 local municipal elections, absentee ballot must be requested by May 20. But if the pandemic continues, this religious case for absentee voting could extend to both the August primary election and the November general election.