NEW ORLEANS, December 3, 2014 — As the 2014 Louisiana special election between incumbent Senate Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican Representative Bill Cassidy reaches the home stretch, a familiar problem is emerging with one constituency.
While Louisiana is not known as a Jewish state, there is a decent number of Jews in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and surrounding areas. While the right of Jews to vote will not be impossible, it will be difficult.
Louisiana is different from most states. It holds an open primary in November in which multiple candidates from multiple parties can run. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote in the general election, a runoff is held. While Tuesday is the traditional November election day, the runoff is held on the first Saturday in December. Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath. Jews are prohibited from writing, so cannot fill in a ballot with a pen or pencil.
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin of Chabad of New Orleans pointed out that Louisiana uses electronic ballots, and Jews are not allowed to use electricity on Shabbos (Sabbath). Pressing the touch screens is prohibited. So is the use of an automobile to get to the polling place.
Rabbi Rivkin did point out that Jews had other options. There was early voting, although that brief window is over. There is no early voting in the few days before the Saturday election. Polling places are not as prevalent as they will be on election Saturday. There was also the option to vote by mail. For those who wanted to vote on election day, the polls will be open until 8:00 p.m. Central Time. In December, Shabbos will be over before 6:00 p.m.
While two hours may seem like enough time to get to the polls, there is also the Havdalah (post-Sabbath) ritual that takes a brief bit of time. Havdalah allows Jews to shower for the first time in 24 hours since hot water cannot be used on Shabbos. So by the time Jews finish Shabbos, clean themselves up, and get to the polls, it truly is a race against time.
The special election is expected to have very low turnout. Jews in general tend to vote in greater percentages than other ethnic and religious groups. As for who benefits from a depressed Jewish turnout, that, like many other things in Judaism, is a subject for debate.
Jews tend to vote disproportionately for Democrats. So on the surface, Senator Landrieu gets hurt by their staying home.
Digging deeper offers a different analysis. Many Reform Jews tend to be secular. While many reform Jews do keep the Sabbath, a healthy plurality of them do not. Orthodox Jews make up only about 10 percent of the national Jewish population, and an overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews vote Republican. Israel is the main issue for Orthodox Jews, while secular Jews are more concerned with social issues. Orthodox Jews also tend to support traditional values. Orthodox Jews by definition dedicate their lives to obeying the Jewish laws. They will not violate the Sabbath except for life and death emergencies (which according to Jewish law would not be a violation anyway). So a Saturday election could hurt Republican Cassidy since his Jewish supporters are the ones who will stay home.
Chabad is an apolitical organization. Virtually all of the major Louisiana politicians are said to be pro-Israel and good on Jewish issues. What matters to Rabbi Rifkin and many other Jews is that they should not have to eschew participating in civic responsibilities due to religious beliefs.
Moving Louisiana runoff elections to Sundays is not an option. Christians would not tolerate such a move, nor should they. Louisiana is a state with many religious Christians. Giving Jews the right to vote on Friday during the day or on Sunday could come with other problems. If non-Jews pretend to be Jewish, there is massive potential for voter fraud. Charges of discrimination would be numerous.
One way to settle the problem is for Louisiana to extend the Saturday vote until 10:00 p.m or even Midnight. While poll-workers will be tired from a long day, the runoff election lasts about a month. The harm in extending the election by a precious couple of hours is outweighed by the enormous societal good of having more people participating in the electoral process.
On this issue, Democrats and Republicans, Jews and non-Jews, secular voters and religious ones can all agree.