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Posted at 06:41 PM ET, 04/13/2011

Rabbi sues D.C. election board over Passover conflict

A local rabbi is suing the District’s elections board, claiming that observant Jews will be precluded from voting in a special election set for later this month.

The April 26 vote, to elect an at-large D.C. Council member and State Board of Education members in wards 4 and 8, falls on the last day of Passover. Observers of the holy day would be prohibited from voting until 8:40 p.m. that night; religious strictures dictate that they may not write or complete an electronic circuit before that time.

Polls are set to close at 8 p.m.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, leader of Ohev Shalom — The National Synagogue, asked a federal judge Wednesday to change the date of the election or extend the hours to 10 p.m. or later.

The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, his lawsuit claims, has “infringe[d] on the ability of the observant Jewish community to fully participate in this election.”

In response to Herzfeld’s concerns, the board voted last week to offer additional early voting at its downtown headquarters April 17 from 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Affected voters are also free to apply for an absentee ballot.

But those concessions, according to Herzfeld’s suit, still “requir[e] more of observant Jewish voters ... than of other voters.” Thus, he argues, the election remains unconstitutional.

“Rabbi Herzfeld,” his lawsuit reads, “wants the opportunity to vote in-person on Election Day.”

Elections officials say that their hands are tied. A special election, by District law, is set for the first Tuesday at least 114 days after a vacancy is certified — which happens to be the 26th.

“The board did not have discretion in scheduling the date of the election, and that is unfortunate,” said Alysoun McLaughlin, a board spokeswoman.

Election hours, McLaughlin added, cannot be changed except by court order. If they were extended, she said, it would create serious logistical problems keeping the city’s 142 polling places open — including negotiating arrangements with various public and private facilities hosting the polls and making sure enough workers were available to close them.

“We can’t assume that our workforce will be available for us that late,” she said.

Herzfeld’s suit disputes that the date is inviolable, noting that the board has the power to combine special elections set to occur close together.

McLaughlin said that the board has sent absentee ballot applications and information on early voting to several synagogues and Jewish organizations. She added that several other jurisdictions, in five states, have also set elections for the same day.

Herzfeld said that the early voting location, at the One Judiciary Square office building, in particularly inconvenient to members of his congregation, which is in Shepherd Park, in the far northern reaches of the city.

“It’s about as far as you could possibly get from early voting,” he said. “I think that’s a real disadvantage.”

Herzfeld added that he was upset that officials didn’t foresee a problem.

“They said, ‘How are we supposed to know it’s Passover?’ I found that to be so off-putting,” he said. “It’s your job to know. It’s your job to make sure the elections are fair.”

A hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan is set for noon Friday.

By  |  06:41 PM ET, 04/13/2011

 
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