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At urging of RNC, Virginia GOP will let Orthodox Jews vote absentee in Sabbath-day convention

Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, urged Virginia party leaders to reverse their decision not to allow Orthodox Jews and others with Saturday religious obligations to vote absentee in the May 8 gubernatorial convention.
Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, urged Virginia party leaders to reverse their decision not to allow Orthodox Jews and others with Saturday religious obligations to vote absentee in the May 8 gubernatorial convention. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — State Republican Party leaders, with a nudge from the national GOP chief, reversed a decision that would have prevented Orthodox Jews and others with Saturday religious obligations from voting in the party's nominating contest for governor and two other statewide offices.

Virginia Republicans will pick their nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general at a convention May 8, a Saturday, which is the Sabbath for Orthodox Jews, Seventh-day Adventists and some other religious groups.

Last week, the governing body for the Republican Party of Virginia rejected a plea from four rabbis to allow those with Saturday religious obligations to cast an absentee ballot instead, an option it offers active-duty military personnel.

Virginia GOP won’t let Orthodox Jews vote absentee in Sabbath-day convention

But the State Central Committee reconsidered the matter, voting unanimously for the absentee option immediately after Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel encouraged them to do so Sunday night in a closed-door meeting.

McDaniel reached out to state party Chairman Rich Anderson over the weekend following news reports about last week’s decision, telling him the issue was important to the national party, Anderson said.

After lobbying over the weekend by rabbis, some committee members were already primed to reconsider the vote. But McDaniel, who joined a virtual executive session meeting, sealed the deal, Anderson said.

“The overall tenor of her message was, ‘We speak quite often as a party of religious freedoms and inclusivity, and I want you to honor that principle,’ which they were already en route to do,” Anderson said Monday. “They had already started the journey to the outcome. . . . But she put the pretty bow on top.”

An RNC spokeswoman confirmed McDaniel’s participation but declined to elaborate Monday.

The reversal pleased advocates for a few dozen Jews and Seventh-day Adventists who’d signed up to vote at the convention.

But some Republicans thought having a national party chief weigh in on a state party fight was a bad look for the Republican Party of Virginia, which had been bitterly split for months over the nomination method and its operational nuts and bolts. The number and location of polling places has been the focus of pitched battles, as has the method of tallying votes.

“It’s embarrassing she had to step in,” said one of the members, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private meeting.

After meeting privately, the committee voted to reverse itself in a public session streamed on Facebook. There was no public discussion.

Voters with religious obligations will be allowed to cast absentee ballots on Friday, May 7, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. They first have to fill out a form by May 4, notifying the state party that they plan to take advantage of that option.

Anderson said committee members who had initially opposed the accommodation were simply overwhelmed by the rabbis’ request, coming on top of the “thousands of moving parts” involved in staging a convention.

“It is a tough mouthful that they have bit off, and they’re having to chew right now,” he said. “So adding something else, it had a deterrent effect early — ‘Oh my gosh, how can we handle one more task?’ ”

The committee also ironed out two other major issues Sunday, less than two weeks before its convention. It approved 39 polling locations across the state, which will be open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on May 8.

Three Republicans running for Virginia governor are wary of vote-counting software

The committee also agreed to count the ballots by hand. Three campaigns raised alarms last week about what they called an “untested” computerized vote-tallying system being pitched to the state party.

Ballots will be placed into sealed containers at the polling places and transported to a central location in Richmond for counting, a process that will be open to representatives from each campaign. It is expected to take several days to determine the winner, who must garner a majority, not a mere plurality.

Volunteers counting the votes will have to sort through the ballots multiple times under a system of ranked-choice voting. Another complication: Votes will be weighted based on each locality’s performance in past GOP contests.

The RNC has agreed to help the state party identify an independent auditing firm to validate the results, Anderson said.

“We’ve got, at least, a counting process where the candidates themselves have confidence,” Anderson said. “And that’s what’s important. You want all your candidates to feel like they’re going to get a fair shake.”

Seven Republicans are seeking their party’s gubernatorial nomination: state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (Chesterfield); Del. Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights), a former House speaker; retired Army Col. Sergio de la Peña; former think-tank executive Peter Doran; businessman Pete Snyder; former Carlyle Group executive Glenn Youngkin; and former Roanoke sheriff Octavia Johnson.

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