President Op-ed in InsideSources: Facebook, Twitter on the Right Side of History With Bans on Holocaust Denial
Anti-Semitism’s lengthy history is built on ignorance and the perpetuation of lies by people who hate Jews. It’s a disease far more incurable than a pandemic.
Over the centuries, despots disliked a people whose theology introduced a code of morality and justice that flipped civilizations. From pharaohs to Hitler and too many others to name, rulers responded with force and power, mostly sentencing Jews to slavery, ghettos and death.
Today, people continue to foment hate fueled by ignorance and lies, and still targeting Jews. The weapon of choice for ignorance and lies is a platform of recklessness called social media. Oh sure, when used responsibly, social media is a very productive tool. Such responsible behavior is not common these days.
But on Oct. 12, Facebook, with its users representing one-third of the world’s 7.8 billion people, decided to do something really bold about this recklessness by simply acting responsibly — the social media platform decided not to allow people to lie about the Holocaust.
Days later, Twitter announced its “hateful conduct policy” issued its own prohibition of “attempts to deny or diminish” violent events, including the Holocaust. Twitter has taken aim primarily at white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
Facebook’s Monika Bickert announced in a blog a hate speech policy update, specifically “to prohibit any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust.”
The company’s decision was prompted by the recent rise in anti-Semitism, not just vandalism or insults, but shootings and physical attacks, and an “alarming level of ignorance about the Holocaust.” Bickert noted a recent survey that showed that one in four American adults between ages 18 and 39 believed the Holocaust is a myth.
One might wonder how on earth is this ignorance possible in the United States?
For decades, survivors have made presentations. Newsreel footage starkly shows the horrifying, shocking images. Books on the subject fill libraries. Two-thirds (34) of the states in the U.S. mandate some form of Holocaust or genocide education.
About the same number of states have impressive museums, mostly in major population centers, or monuments seen by many others. The 16 U.S. states without such mandates have less population cumulatively than California.
There are 43 countries in the world with Holocaust museums or memorials. In Europe, Germany boasts 22 memorials and museums. France has 13 Holocaust memorials or museums. Greece has 10 museums and monuments. Those numbers don’t include memorials and displays in synagogues and temples.
Yad Vashem — The World Holocaust Remembrance Center — makes available “ready to print” exhibitions. Auschwitz-Birkenau is widely visited, but the solemnity of this hallowed earth is lost with eye-catching signage that welcomes tour buses.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center has exhibitions ready for travel. Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation has created captivating holographic interviews of survivors that will give life to eyewitness accounts long after survivors take their final breaths.
The United Nations and its agencies, notably UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization), with all of its flaws, embraces Holocaust education with permanent displays of art and various publications.
In May, the latest Holocaust-related legislation passed in Congress was the Never Again Education Act. More than 30 countries have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.
Despite all of the access to information, what has the world learned? It has learned that ancient hate thrives in the modern world.
So, Facebook’s banning of Holocaust denial is an important, courageous act of media leadership.
It’s been a long time coming and B’nai B’rith International has long advocated such a move. CEO Mark Zuckerberg is to be commended, though the company admits that enforcing the policy, policing the platform, will be quite a challenge.
Twitter’s announcement is equally welcome. But if the bright Facebook and Twitter coders can write algorithms and direct users with hashtags and other tools, they should be able to identify keywords that will curb the volume of hate posts before they hit the digital universe.
Germans worked hard to keep the Holocaust secret.
Rumors swirled as work camps becoming death camps — Dachau, Chelmo, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Auschwitz — were shockingly real. But the Nazi’s own record-keeping carefully lays out the horrific truth of the Holocaust.
Nazis even documented mass shootings, starvations, experimental surgeries, the crematoria, the piles of skeletal bodies. Thousands of camps dotted Nazi-controlled European countries. Eleven million people, more than six million Jews, were systematically murdered.
Of course anti-Semitism didn’t begin, or end, with the Holocaust, and rulers have been complicit in Jew hatred for thousands of years.
With the modern Jewish State of Israel maturing nicely at 72, the lies that generated anti-Semitism continue today from across the political spectrum, from extreme Islamists and with U.N. resolutions denying any ancient Jewish connection to the Western Wall, not to mention any Jewish roots there in general.
The United Nations could and should learn from the example of Facebook. Resolutions that deny undeniable Jewish history insult the U.N. mission. As for other media — all media — they should learn from the Facebook and Twitter examples.
For a media platform that could never police itself adequately from lies, rage baiting and hate — all things wrong — Facebook got this one right.
And Twitter followed.
Read Charles' expert analysis in InsideSources.
(October 11, 2020 / JNS) As the Jewish people close the book on the last year and look ahead to the new one, there is much to be grateful for, especially as Israel seems closer to regional peace than ever before. But, while Israel celebrated its historic normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Hamas marked the occasion with a salvo of rocket attacks on the southern Israeli cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod. Hamas’s frequent targeting of civilian areas will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the terror group.
For decades, Hamas has perpetrated gruesome and unprovoked attacks on Israeli civilians, leaving no demographic unharmed. Its long list of victims ranges from infants to the elderly. Further aggravating these acts of terror is Hamas’s pathological rationale that no one in Israel is considered a non-combatant, or to quote Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar during a 2016 conversation with an international human-rights group: “There are no civilians in Israel.”
This “principle” extends beyond terror victims and is currently being used to justify the incommunicado detention of Avraham “Avera” Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, two young Israeli citizens who have no affiliation with the Israel Defense Forces and documented histories of mental illness.
Mengistu was born in Ethiopia and made aliyah with his family at age 5. After settling in Ashkelon, the family endured a series of hardships, both economic and personal. Mengistu’s older brother, Masrashau, died in 2011. According to friends and family, it was around this time that Mengistu began to exhibit a psychological disorder that purportedly intensified in the months before his detainment by Hamas in Gaza and his subsequent disappearance.
On Sept. 7, 2014, the then 32-year-old Mengistu crossed the border into Gaza of his own volition. Despite a series of warning shots fired by an IDF patrol, he continued over the border fence. He has not been seen by an Israeli since then. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know his current condition because in the six years since he is believed to have been captured and held captive by Hamas, there has not been a single detail about him or even confirmation that Hamas is holding him.
Al-Sayed, the young Israeli Bedouin from the southern town of Hura, who also crossed the border of his own volition in 2015, is in a similar situation. According to al-Sayed’s family, he, too, suffers from mental illness. For years, his family has pleaded publicly to Hamas for his release; five years later, his fate is still unknown.
The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirms on its website that Hamas is holding captive the two men.
Hamas also refuses to return the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza during the 2014 “Operation Protective Edge,” Lt. Hadar Goldin, 23, and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul, 20. A few hours into what was to be a ceasefire, Hamas attacked a group of IDF soldiers working to demolish a network of the terror group’s cross-border tunnels.
It is believed that Goldin was killed during the attack and his body dragged into the tunnel from which Hamas militants had emerged. Two other soldiers died along with Goldin. The previous month, Shaul and six other IDF soldiers were killed in their armored personnel carrier by an anti-tank missile fired by Hamas. Shaul’s body was never found. The Goldin and Shaul families have endured years without proper closure.
Hamas’ complete disregard for the ethical norms that most of the world abides by is not surprising considering it is a terror organization. The interminable length of being held incommunicado, to say nothing of the unlawful detainment of mentally ill non-combatants, is in flagrant violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Under this covenant, Mengistu and al-Sayed must be brought before a local judge shortly after their initial detention, thus revealing and confirming their identity, as well as charging them with an offense.
Failing even this, their detainment now falls under the classification of an enforced disappearance. Hamas has also refused to allow the International Red Cross, or any other organization, to check on their health and well-being, yet another indication of Hamas’ depravity.
This indefinite and surreptitious confinement, coupled with troubling psychological distress, amounts to cruel and inhumane torture. Violating international law further still, Hamas is attempting to use any information on the captured men as a bargaining chip in a prisoner swap for members of Hamas currently held by Israel. It appears that neither Mengistu nor al-Sayed would actually be surrendered in exchange for the Hamas prisoners; instead, Hamas would only reveal the most basic information confirming the captivity and proof of life of the two Israeli men.
Hamas’s kidnapping and detaining of civilians in secret captivity is an appalling violation of human rights. Six years later, the international community remains silent on the situation. There has been a virtual blackout in the international media, as well.
While major news outlets disproportionally and unfairly focus on Israel, one would think that the enforced disappearance of two civilians at the very least would warrant a mention. Disappointing, yet not surprising, Hamas’ human-rights abuses continue to go largely ignored by the media.
The Mengistu and al-Sayed families, with their limited financial resources, have reached out to countless international humanitarian organizations and attempted communication through several diplomatic channels over the years to no avail. The movement to #FreeAvera, #BringHadarHome and #BringOron home is large in Israel, and a determined group of those fighting for the return of all four refuse to give up hope. But in today’s political climate, with social-justice organizations marching for the human rights of all—where is the public outcry in the West over these blatant injustices?
Those of us who engage in advocacy for Israel are not surprised by the inhumanity of Hamas, which is responsible for incessant terror toward all Israelis. We are well aware that Hamas does not play by the rules of war or the norms of humanity; that its children’s television shows glorify suicide bombers; that it lynches LGBTQ people publicly; that it imprisons journalists; that it sends incendiary balloons to Israeli kindergartens; that it spends humanitarian relief funds on building underground tunnels to attack Israeli civilians instead of feed its people. But it is not the sole responsibility of Israel or its advocates to tell this story.
The Jewish people have just spent 10 days reflecting and asking forgiveness from God and from one another. As we move forward in the new year, we commit ourselves to helping, in any way we can, bring Mengistu and al-Sayed—and the remains of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul—home to their families.
The topic of their return is on our agenda each time we hold policy meetings with diplomats asking them to raise their voices over this travesty. We must do all that we can to increase public outcry and demand their release. We owe it to these helpless young men who have no voice to ask.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis in JNS.org.
Two events last week have illustrated, once again, how much Europe’s tin ear on Iran, and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to function, despite a rapidly changing geopolitical environment in the region.
The United Nations Security Council, in a 2-2 vote, with 11 abstentions, refused to support an extension of the arms embargo on Iran, which has been in place since 2007. Russia and China voted against, which came as no surprise. The only country that joined the United States, which has for some time supported the extension, was the Dominican Republic. But among the countries casting an abstention were Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Nine votes were needed to adopt an extension of the embargo.
The embargo not only prohibits the sale of conventional weapons to Iran but also prohibits Iran from transferring weapons to its proxies. It’s been in violation of this provision through its repeated delivery of rockets and other weaponry to Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations.
In their explanation of why they voted as they did, the Europeans expressed concern that an embargo extension would chase Tehran away from the discredited 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), ostensibly agreed to in order to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
The United States withdrew from the plan in 2018, citing its loose provisions and loopholes that would allow, after a period of 15 years, Iran to continue its nuclear weapons program. Effective, unannounced inspections of military sites, for example — a provision touted by supporters of the JCPOA — could not be carried out under the plan because of an arcane protocol of advance notice to the Iranians. Nor was Iran’s ballistic missile program, focused on being able to carry nuclear warheads as far as the heart of Europe, dismantled.
With cover provided by the JCPOA, Iran has set about to militarily and geopolitically meddle in the affairs of its neighbors. Its presence, or proxy connections in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and of course Lebanon are there for all to see. Lebanon has become part of “Iran Inc.” with its terrorist proxy Hezbollah having insinuated itself into the cabinet, and the terror group’s influence on the Lebanese army growing year-to-year. Not to mention its relationship with Hamas, in what amounts to a real time Shia-Sunni demonstration of the dictum, “the enemy of my enemy [Israel] is my friend.”
The final straw for those who cling to the JCPOA should have been Israel’s carrying off that trove of documents last year from a Tehran warehouse, that makes it abundantly clear that Iran has been developing nuclear weapons. What more could the Security Council want for evidence of Tehran’s intentions?
And as if that weren’t enough, the Gulf Cooperation Council, representing six countries with varying interests in the region, supported the extension of the embargo because of Iran’s constant threats to most of its member states.
So instead of sending a clear message to Iran that its malign behavior will no longer be tolerated, whether it be its nuclear ambitions, its support for terrorism or its hegemonist sweep across the region, by not voting to extend the arms embargo, Europe once again punted. Its lack of principle is not only disheartening, it is frightening.
Notwithstanding European expressions of “concern” over Iranian behavior, the real test — voting for the continuation of the embargo — has been failed miserably by governments whose modus operandi on this and many other vital issues is to do some can-kicking down the road of international diplomacy.
The other major event involving the region last week was the tremendously transformative announcement of the normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Along with the Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Jordanian peace agreements which preceded it, the Abraham Accord is the third pillar of diplomatic achievements to bring stability to the region.
For decades the conventional thinking was that if an Israeli-Palestinian agreement could be achieved, peace between Israel and the rest of the Arab world would soon follow (see: the Fahd Plan, later called the Arab Peace Initiative, which promoted that approach to peacemaking). In fact, the 1979 agreement with Egypt, and the 1994 pact with Jordan did not wait for an agreement with the Palestinians, making the point that procrastination, where real strategic interests are at stake, makes no sense.
The Palestinians have walked away from numerous opportunities to negotiate a deal with Israel. Now, time has moved on, and they are looking at a train that is rapidly moving out of the station.
That approach has now been validated by the normalization agreement announced by President Donald Trump. Reaction among most European states was favorable. For months, though, the European Union and most of its member states were obsessed with warning Israel against an annexation plan in the West Bank that they were absolutely sure would happen. They might have spent that time more productively urging the Palestinian Authority to come to the negotiating table with Israel, but preferred instead to browbeat Israel, in the-sky-is-falling rhetoric.
Notwithstanding the encomiums that have flowed in from most European capitals, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn introduced a jarring assessment of the normalization agreement, in language reminding us that old speak on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still alive and well in Europe.
Said Asselborn of the diplomatic breakthrough, speaking critically of the UAE with Germany’s Deutschlandfunk radio: “…I think you can’t just let down your own brothers [Palestinians] in order to pursue economic interests and perhaps also have more security for yourself.”
Never have more hypocritical words been spoken. If Asselborn is right, what is Luxembourg doing in the European Union or as a member of NATO? Of course nation states pursue economic and security interests. Some also pursue policies aimed at bringing peace and stability to their neighborhoods, which is what the normalization agreement looks to accomplish.
Asselborn didn’t stop there; it gets worse: ”I am not an expert in theology, but I think that in all cultures and religions there is a well-established norm against theft. This is one of the basic norms of human co-existence….” He went on to say that “notwithstanding the Ten Commandments, seizing territory by force is a violation of Israel’s obligations under the U.N. Charter…and goes against a host of U.N. Security Council resolutions.”
Not only are Asselborn’s remarks an expression of sour grapes, but he has crossed a red line in diplo-speak. He is charging Israel, citing none other than the Ten Commandments, with stealing from the Palestinians, which takes it dangerously into blood libel territory. The old Yiddish expression — “vos iz oyfn lung iz oyfn tsung” — or what it is you breathe (really believe) is what you say,” — has never been more apt.
How can countries whose representatives hold such views, given the history of the region and the complexities of peacemaking, ever present themselves as honest brokers or even objective observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum?
The European abstentions in the Security Council vote on extending the arms embargo on Iran, and the Asselborn comments on the Israel-UAE normalization pact are stark reminders that in parts of Europe old attitudes and biases die hard. It’s not only imagination that’s lacking in Europe, it is an inability — or perhaps unwillingness — to act on principle. Standing up to bullies like Iran or recognizing that the diplomatic winds blowing out of the Gulf represent initiatives that might in fact lead to some kind of accommodation between Israel and the Palestinians, are the shape of things to come.
Stuck somewhere in the 20th century, Europe is late to the game, the one where tectonic shifts which present new opportunities to bring about positive changes in the world order, are taking place every day.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis in the Times of Israel.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO and Executive Vice President of B'nai B'rith International.
The trial of the Halle synagogue shooter – lessons to be learned amid resurgent anti-Semitism in Germany
On the 21st of July, the trial of Halle neo-Nazi terrorist Stephan Balliet began in Magdeburg, Germany. He faces life in prison for the murder of 40-year-old Jana L. and 20-year-old Kevin S., as well as 68 cases of attempted murder and incitement to racial hatred following his attack on Halle’s synagogue last year. Amid growing anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism, this was the deadliest anti-Jewish attack in Germany since WWII.
On the 9th of October 2019, Yom Kippur eve, the 28-year-old right-wing extremist drove up to the small-town synagogue, sporting military attire and geared up with explosives and firearms. As just over 50 worshipers gathered in prayer, the attacker started shooting at the building, where a now-memorialized wooden door resisted the shots and helped save the lives of all those inside. Upon failing to enter the synagogue, the attacker started shooting on the street, killing a passer-by and a kebab salesman the shooter assumed to be an immigrant.
Prior to the attack, Balliet published an online manifesto, which detailed his hatred for Jews and his belief in the Great Replacement theory”– a conspiracy myth that claims Jewish elites promote feminism to deter birth rates in predominantly white European countries to replace white males. He also broadcasted the attack live. It was viewed over 2,000 times and archived to right-wing platforms before being taken down by Twitch, a platform owned by Amazon.
Balliet was imprisoned following a police chase, but he attempted to escape this May, climbing an 11-foot fence during a walk through the courtyard. It was only after this incident that he was transferred to a maximum security prison.
Forty-three coplaintiffs, a majority of whom were in the Halle synagogue during the attack, were present at the trial as the terrorist testified about his desire to "commit a massacre", as per the indictment. He showed no remorse.
The Halle attack came amid a pandemic of right-wing extremist attacks globally – notably the attacks on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg and on the Christchurch mosque in New Zealand – which, as the Halle synagogue attacker himself admitted, served as inspiration.
It also came on the backdrop of resurgent far-right terrorism in Germany. In 2019, Germany’s federal government recorded just over 22 000 right-wing extremist attacks over 2,000 explicitly anti-Semitic attacks, both representing the largest numbers in past years. It was in the same year that a neo-Nazi sympathizer fatally shot centrist politician Walter Lübcke, a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party. In the Germany city of Hanau this February, a right-wing extremist supporting anti-Semitic and racist views killed nine people he believed were foreigners.
Branches of the army and police are currently engulfed in scandals amid uncovered links to extreme right groups. Over 600 soldiers were investigated by Germany’s military counterintelligence. After several far-right incidents were discovered, the KSK, Germany’s elite Special Commando Forces, was disbanded.
Thomas Haldenwang, president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution who is tasked with protecting Germany from extremists on right and left, drew attention to an “informal network” of right-wing extremists in strategic areas ranging from the domestic intelligence service, as outlined above, to media. Anti-Semitic messaging was, according to Haldenwang, being subtly infiltrated into public discourse.
Facing the reality of resurgent anti-Jewish hatred, given its history, Germany has put in place strong measures to tackle antisemitism.
Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism Felix Klein and a growing list of regional coordinators oversee Germany’s attempts to address the phenomenon. Major Jewish institutions are provided with security; prosecution of hate crimes is well established in the criminal justice system; legislation was recently passed that tightens regulations for online platforms to report and take down illegal hate speech; Holocaust education is well anchored in curricula; numerous exchange programs with Israel exist; and the political establishment has a deeply enshrined culture of speaking out in support of the Jewish community.
Following the attack on the German synagogue, President Steinmeier and Chancellor Merkel both attended vigils, in Halle and Berlin, and recommitted to increase efforts to address anti-Semitism, particularly regarding the lack of security in smaller communities.
In response to the recent resurgence of right-wing extremism, Germany placed the more extreme branch of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party under surveillance, and, in a first, banned a series of clubs belonging to the far-right movement Citizens of the Reich.
It’s a matter of perspective whether all this is re-assuring, or all the more alarming in Germany’s feebleness when confronted with the trends outlined earlier. One thing is clear: More needs to be done.
Lessons for moving forward
The terrorist attack in Halle offers many specific policy points of reflection. The streaming of the attack online feeds into ongoing discussions about platforms’ accountability for users’ content. The attacker’s gamer profile points to the violent inclinations of gaming platforms. His declared world views, a signal that more must be done to address the formation and dissemination of conspiracy myths. The now-flimsy wooden synagogue door is a testament to the need for heightened security, even in smaller communities.
Yet beyond these specific points, a recurring theme emerged from testimonies of those who survived Halle: The trial cannot be about this singular incident. Rather, it must raise awareness about deep-rooted anti-Semitism and extremism in many corners of German society. As Commissioner Klein noted in a recent interview, a welcome outcome would be increased discourse about anti-Semitism in German society, and real understanding among civilians and policy-makers alike about the real scope of the challenges faced.
Alina Bricman is the Director of EU Affairs at B’nai B’rith International. She formerly served as president of the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) from 2017 to 2019 and worked for the Representation of the European Commission in Romania and for the Median Research Centre, a Romanian civil society NGO focused on civil engagement and combating xenophobia. She studied political science at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest and at the Central European University in Budapest.
In May, my wife and I received our ballots to vote by mail in Maryland’s primary. The whole process was easy. We voted and put our ballots in the provided self-addressed envelope. Given COVID-19, we preferred to vote by mail since we are trying to limit our exposure to the virus. The entire experience got me thinking, “What if every American was able to vote by mail in the general election?” Because of the pandemic, every effort should be made to ensure that all Americans are given the ability to vote by mail, particularly seniors, who are more susceptible to the virus.
According to the United States Census Bureau, 70 percent of seniors (65+) turned out to vote in the 2016 presidential election (for more information please see “Seniors and Voter Participation”). Seniors are a reliable voting block; however, given the pandemic, there are now clear obstacles stopping them from being able to vote. Polling places have been removed from senior living facilities to limit the residents' exposure to the virus. This is a necessary safety move but an obvious downside because it makes voting for seniors more difficult. Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Project, indicates in-person voting during COVID-19 brings risks because of shared touch screens, ballot marking devices and pens. We certainly don’t want anyone choosing between their health and safety and their right to vote.
Complicating matters further, Pew Research Center found a majority of poll workers are 61 and over. Furthermore, The Washington Post reported that states have had a hard time staffing polls during the pandemic. For example, in Anchorage, Alaska, 95 percent of their typical poll workers opted out of working a local election. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, polling locations for the primary election were reduced from 180 to five. It’s hard to blame people, especially older Americans, who feel working at the polls brings inherent dangers during a pandemic. Obviously, having less staff at the polls will make in-person voting more challenging and only furthers the need to increase voting access by mail.
States vary on how to administer voting through the mail. A few states will automatically mail residents a ballot, most states have “no excuse” absentee voting and a handful of states require a reason. You might be saying, “so what’s the problem? An overwhelming majority of states will mail seniors a ballot or allow them to request one.”
Unfortunately, during a pandemic, it’s not that simple!
What happens if older Americans are required to get a witness signature on their absentee ballots? Countless seniors are self-quarantining because of the virus, which makes getting a witness signature impractical, especially if the signature must be from another registered voter in their state. Teresa Maples, a senior with a pre-existing health problem from Minnesota, said, "There is no question that I will be unable to vote in person because I am strictly following the social distancing and self-isolation guidelines. Because I live alone and cannot safely obtain a witness signature, my vote may never be counted." According to Pew Research Center, this is a problem with potentially far reaching consequences, as 27 percent of people age 60 and above live alone in our country.
Also, what about people who live with their elderly parents and fear voting in person will expose them and, in turn, their parents to the virus? This could be a real problem in states that require “an excuse” to vote absentee. For instance, Martha Christian Green from Louisiana, whose 80-year-old mother lives with her, has a risky situation. “If I cannot vote by absentee ballot in the 2020 elections, I will be forced to choose between voting and protecting my mother’s health,” Green told the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Voting has always been important to me and my family. My father took me to register to vote when I turned 18. I have a strong family legacy of voting – almost genetic. I believe it is my civic duty.”
Thankfully, there have been lawsuits filed around the country on these and similar matters to ensure everyone’s right to vote is protected. Recently, in Minnesota, litigation was settled because both parties agreed that a witness’ signature would not be required to submit a ballot through the mail. However, legal challenges to this agreement by the Minnesota House of Representatives is still a possibility. While we can expect this type of litigation to continue around the country up until Election Day, in the end I hope that our judicial system will recognize that every citizen’s right to vote is paramount and not place any undue burdens on people’s ability to make their voices heard.
Ideally, all elected officials would be working to expand voter access during a pandemic. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be consensus on voting from home because of the virus. Some government officials argue that voting by mail will lead to election fraud.
When evaluating the propensity for voter fraud through the mail, it’s important to recognize the rigorous existing safeguards. For example, The New York Times reports that Washington state confirms personal information and works to ensure voters are only registered once throughout the state. On top of that, election offices ensure signatures on file match those on the ballot. It should be noted that the state of Washington votes largely by mail.
Any conversation about mail-in voting should start with the premise that election fraud is not prevalent; therefore, there is no justification to force people into crowded polling places during a pandemic. Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, and Charles Stewart III, director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, have reported that during the past 20 years in our country, 250 million votes have been cast through the mail, which have resulted in only 143 criminal convictions for voter fraud.
Obviously even one case of voter fraud is a problem that should be prosecuted, but given its minuscule presence in our country, politicians who scare everyone into thinking this is a crisis are not engaging in an honest dialogue.
Pew Research Center reports a whopping 70 percent of Americans believe that voters should be allowed to vote by mail. With an overwhelming amount of support, let’s all start working together to increase access to voting. Older Americans and their loved ones shouldn’t have to choose between their health and exercising their constitutional right to vote. Life in quarantine can be frustrating enough, let’s make things a little easier and expand everyone’s ability to vote.
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Legislative Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
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