D.C. rabbi sues city board; election falls on holiday

April 13, 2011

A District rabbi is suing the city’s elections board, claiming that observant Jews will be precluded from voting in an upcoming special election.

The April 26 election, to elect an at-large D.C. Council member and two State Board of Education members, falls on the last day of Passover. Observers of the holy day would be prohibited from voting until 8:40 p.m. Polls are set to close at 8 p.m.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, leader of Ohev Sholom — 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.

By setting the election when it did, his lawsuit claims, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics “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 on Sunday, April 17, from 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Affected voters also can apply for an absentee ballot.

But those options, according to Herzfeld’s suit, still requires “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 their hands are tied. The date is set by District law and election hours cannot be changed except by court order, board spokeswoman Alysoun McLaughlin said. If they were extended, she said, keeping the city’s 142 polling places open would create serious logistical problems.

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 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, is 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.”

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

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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