In D.C., where Republicans are scarce, Orthodox Jews actually are a large enough contingent to potentially affect the outcome of the GOP’s presidential primary that is scheduled for Shabbos.
And so when Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld learned the schedule, he was dismayed.
The primary was scheduled for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. this Shabbos — a brief six-hour window to vote, falling entirely within Shabbos.
For observant Jews such as Herzfeld’s congregants at Ohev Sholom, the 16th Street NW Orthodox congregation that calls itself the National Synagogue, voting is prohibited on Shabbos.
Herzfeld went straight to the D.C. Republican Party to demand a change. He has gone to court over the timing of an election in the past, and he threatened to do so again. “Primaries and caucuses should not be scheduled at a time that disadvantages people,” he said.
On Monday, he got his way.
Patrick Mara, executive director of the D.C. Republican Party, said the party will keep the polls open until 9 p.m., late enough to wait until Shabbos ends after dark and then head to the polls. “We don’t want to exclude anyone who can’t, obviously, vote for religious reasons,” Mara said. “We’ve tried to be as accommodating as possible.”
The new extended hours are just for those registered Republicans who sign a document attesting that they are observant Jews, Mara said. Anyone else still has to vote before 4 p.m.
Mara said the party can’t afford to rent the large ballroom at the Loews Madison Hotel, where it will be set up during the scheduled voting hours, for the extended hours. The extended voting will take place in a smaller room at the hotel at 1177 15th Street NW.
Absentee voting is also very limited, again because of cost considerations, Mara said. Only members of the military serving abroad, disabled veterans and, now, observant Jews will be allowed to cast absentee ballots. Mara said the party would not make exceptions for those who have to work from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Shabbos, those who cannot leave their homes because of illness or those who are out of town on the day.
A grateful Herzfeld said that although he is registered as an independent and will not be voting in the Republican primary, he will lead a busload of his congregants to the polls after Shabbos.
There, they will host a news conference urging other states not to hold primaries and caucuses at times unsuitable for observant Jews. “This is an important precedent that shows that a party is willing to go the extra step to make sure that nobody is disadvantaged,” Herzfeld said. “It’s very simple. Everybody has a right to vote.”
Those extra hours enabling Orthodox voters to cast their ballots actually could make a difference in how the District’s 19 Republican delegates end up being allocated.
Jews are among the most Democratic of any American religious group. In a 2015 Pew study, just 22 percent identified as Republican. But among the Orthodox, the most strictly observant denomination, which accounts for 10 percent of American Jews, 57 percent are Republican, Pew found.
That holds true in the District at the National Synagogue. “We have a significant number in our congregation who are Republican, there’s no question about it. A lot of people in the congregation are very prominent Republicans,” Herzfeld said. “Our congregation is basically split, with half being Democrats, half being Republicans.”
Herzfeld estimates that 250 Shabbos-observant Jews will vote in the D.C. Republican primary. And in an election that Mara predicts will draw 2,000 to 8,000 voters overall (the 2012 D.C. Republican primary drew about 4,400), 250 voters is a sizable chunk.
Up for grabs? The District’s 19 delegates — more than Vermont or Delaware, and only four short of ballyhooed New Hampshire.
(C) 2016 The Washington Post – Julie Zauzmer / Photo: John Kelly/The Washington Post