Victory for Democracy and Religious Freedom: D.C. GOP Accommodates Saturday Religious Observers

American flag and church steeple

Last week, the District of Columbia Republican Party took a step in the right direction in announcing that it would extend polling hours for its Saturday presidential nominating convention by five hours to accommodate the religious practices of Sabbath observant Jews.

This decision to extend Saturday voting hours is an important step toward accommodating voters of all faiths, as CLC advocated for in a recent blog post. 

The D.C. Republican Party’s rule change came in response to a request from Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld.   Herzfeld estimated that as many as 250 Sabbath observant Jews will participate in the GOP convention; a meaningful number in such a small election. 

Rabbi Herzfeld previously sued the city in 2012 for scheduling a special election during the last day of Passover. As a result, the mayor consented to push forward legislation that would require the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics to take religious holidays into account when scheduling elections. A similar bill eventually passed.

While this rule change is welcome, the D.C. Republican Party should do a better job publicizing such procedures through announcements on its website. The D.C. Republican Party currently permits absentee balloting for members of the military stationed overseas and disabled veterans injured in the line of duty. A separate part of the D.C. Republican Party’s website states that Sabbath observant Jews can also vote absentee. This is markedly better than similar provisions in other jurisdictions, but this exception is not listed on the absentee ballot request page, nor does it appear to apply to members of other affected religious groups, such as Seventh-Day Adventists.

The ongoing nature of this debate illustrates that ad hoc changes are not a reliable long term guarantee that members of minority religious communities will have equal access to the polls. After all, if community officials had not acted, many voters would likely have found it harder to vote, again.

In order to create lasting change across the board, state parties must establish fixed procedures that ensure all minority religious group members’ ability to participate in the political process. In the future, all state parties must incorporate religious inclusion into their rules for election planning. Anything less is undemocratic.