On April 13, I sued the D.C. Board of Election and Ethics and the city of Washington to keep polls open longer on Tuesday because the city’s special election coincides with the last day of Passover, a time when observant Jews are prohibited from writing or using electronic devices such as voting machines. Here is how the story unfolded:
As a father, I look forward to taking my children to watch me vote. Never take for granted, I explain to them, the great privilege and responsibility of being able to cast a ballot.
On April 3, we noticed a sign for the April 26 special election for seats on the D.C. Council and the State Board of Education. They asked: “Will you take us to vote?” And that is when I realized I couldn’t.
I immediately brought my concerns to the Board of Elections and Ethics. I explained that the election as scheduled was discriminatory because it was placing a higher burden for voting on a distinct population: observant Jews. Alternatives such as absentee ballots and early voting at Judiciary Square would, in my opinion, result in fewer Jews voting. Instead, I asked for polls to be open till 10 p.m. on the 26th so that Jews could vote after sundown, which will be at 8:40 that night.
Not only did the board deny my request, it reacted insensitively. The board’s counsel said, “How were we supposed to know it’s Passover?” They said our explanation for why we couldn’t vote that day was an “excuse” comparable to someone being on vacation.
But most disturbing was the board’s claim that it was bound by statute to hold the election on that day and would react in the same way if the matter came up again. The board asserted that if the election were scheduled for Christmas, then it would be held even on Christmas.
So with the help of two incredible attorneys, Steven Lieberman and Sharon Davis, we took the Board of Elections and Ethics to federal court on April 13.
Our request for a preliminary injunction keeping the polls open till 10 p.m. on April 26 was denied by U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in light of the heavy burden required for emergency injunctive relief. Nevertheless, Judge Sullivan fully validated our position. He publicly admonished the board, saying that it “had failed to discharge” its responsibility “in a manner that reflects an appreciation for and recognition of the voting rights” of all the residents of the District. He said that he wished that the board and the District would “consent to an extension of [the polling hours until 10 p.m.] because it’s warranted.”
He told the board and the D.C. government that they had it backward. They should have been the plaintiffs asking to extend the polling hours — and the judge said that he “would have happily granted such a motion.” He said he was “profoundly sympathetic” to our position; that the lawsuit was not over “by any stretch of the imagination”; and that the denial of emergency injunctive relief “in no way forecloses the possibility that on a more fully developed record” — our suit was only two days old — we “may be able to establish that the Defendants impermissibly infringed upon [my] constitutional rights.”
I am encouraged to continue our suit to make sure that the city never again schedules an election on a major religious holiday. Judge Sullivan himself said that, “This will never happen again.” That’s exactly right — because we will work hard to make sure of it.
One more thing Judge Sullivan did was to strongly encourage the Board of Elections and Ethics to offer early voting on April 24, Easter Sunday — a request to which the board acceded. (This is something we did not ask for because we did not want to burden anyone else’s religious observance.) He thus not only provided us with an alternative means of voting in this election, but he also showed the board the absurdity of scheduling an election on a major religious holiday.
So I am renting a bus that will leave my synagogue at 2 p.m. on Sunday and we will go down as a community to vote. (Sunday, the sixth day of Passover, isn’t subject to the same restrictions as the last day of the holiday week.) And I invite you — Jews, Christians, Muslims (and those belonging to any faith or none) — to join me on that bus as we go down to vote and thereby not only perform our civic duty but also join together symbolically in a demonstration of religious toleration and fairness for all.
The writer is the rabbi for Ohev Sholom — the National Synagogue in Shepherd Park.