Bill calls for rescheduling votes that conflict with religious observance

Bill calls for rescheduling votes that conflict with religious observance

The N.J. State Association of Jewish Federations has issued a statement supporting Assembly Bill 3186, sponsored by Assemblymen Gary Schaer (D-36) and Patrick Diegman (D-18).

Assemblyman Gary Schaer

According to Jacob Toporek, executive director of the association, the bill – released by the legislature’s state government committee on Monday and scheduled for a full floor vote on Thursday – authorizes New Jersey’s secretary of state to adjust the date of certain elections if that date coincides with a period of religious observance.

“The measure stems from a recent situation in Edison,” said Schaer, who is also the acting mayor of Passaic, referring to that town’s school bond referendum, originally scheduled for Sept. 30. This year, that date coincides with Rosh HaShanah. Under state law, he said, school bond referendums may be held only on specific days, with no ability to reschedule if that day coincides with a religious observance. Nevertheless, after discussions with Jewish community leaders and state and local officials, the Edison school board voted to move the bond vote to December.

Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey region – whose organization took the lead in rallying Jewish groups to speak out against the timing of the election – told this newspaper that a letter sent by the ADL and other Jewish organizations to the town’s acting superintendent of schools held that “by asking Jewish residents to cast absentee ballots, you are effectively establishing a separate and more cumbersome voting procedure for a whole group of Edison residents based only on their religion.”

“We pointed out that Rosh HaShanah is among the most solemn days of the Jewish calendar,” he said. “Observance of this holiday entails considerable time spent in prayer in synagogue while strict adherence to the religious restrictions of Rosh HaShanah renders it impermissible to cast a vote on that day.”

What happened in Edison “tweaked the interest of several assemblymen,” said Toporek, who was among the signatories of the ADL letter, together with representatives of the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of New Jersey, and the American Jewish Committee.

While the situation in Edison was favorably resolved, “there is a greater issue: voting and access,” said Schaer, explaining why he took the matter “a step further” and introduced the legislation. “New Jersey prides itself on diversity and religious accommodation,” he said.

Toporek agreed that while the Edison election was a local issue, it also “represented a challenge to every citizen who holds dear the wonderful right we all share to practice our chosen religion.”

“Knowingly scheduling an election on a day of solemn religious observance is an insult to New Jerseyans everywhere who value the diversity of our state,” said Schaer, adding that he expected the bill to pass easily because “it is clearly a nonpartisan issue.”

A statement appended to the suggested legislation notes that the proposed bill “permits the Secretary of State to change the date provided for a presidential primary election, a primary election for the general election, or a regular municipal election in any year if the date coincides with a period of religious observance that limits significantly the usual activities of the followers of a particular religion or that would result in significant religious consequences for such followers…. The bill also authorizes the Commissioner of Education … to change any of the dates authorized for a regular school election or a special school election” for the same reasons.

“Making this change in election law will not only strengthen our democratic process, but strengthen our commitment to religious tolerance, as well,” said Schaer.

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