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Virginia Republicans Fail to Pass Voting Allowances for Orthodox Jews

A screenshot of the Republican Party SCC zoom meeting
The Republican Party of Virginia's State Central Committee met over Zoom on Thursday night.

UPDATE: Over the weekend, Virginia Republicans reversed course and drafted a plan to let observant Jews participate in the party nominating conventions. Full story from Ben Paviour.

Observant Jews in Virginia will have to forgo observing the Sabbath to participate in the Saturday, May 8 Republican nominating conventions.

The party’s top decision-making body, the State Central Committee, failed to approve a proposal late Thursday night that would have allowed people with religious obligations to vote absentee.

While a majority of the SCC voted in favor of the plan, the 38-28 vote did not clear the necessary 75% threshold needed to modify the party plan.

The disagreement is the latest in a series of tense Zoom meetings centered on who should be allowed to vote for party nominees and how they should do it. The SCC held several marathon sessions this winter on whether to hold a convention or a primary -- a process that dragged on through March. They eventually settled on a “disassembled” convention to be held at sites across the state. Registered delegates will cast ranked-choice ballots to choose nominees for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general.

Four rabbis requested the temporary amendment to the party plan in a letter sent to party chair Rich Anderson dated April 5. They argued that the Orthodox community were reliable Republican voters who should be able to both honor their religious beliefs and participate in the convention. 

“Orthodox Jews observe the Sabbath from Friday sunset until Saturday nightfall,” the rabbis wrote. “As such, we do not drive, use electronic devices, employ handwriting instruments (e.g. pens, pencils), among other prohibited activities. As such, it would be impossible for Jews of faith to vote in your unassembled convention.”

Many members of the SCC spoke in favor of the proposal, which would have allowed delegates with religious obligations to drop off sealed ballots with local unit chairs ahead of the Saturday vote. Proponents argued that it aligned with the party precepts around the freedom of worship. And they said excluding observant Jews played into perceptions that Republican Party, which has not won a statewide election since 2009, was intolerant.

Thomas Turner, chair of the Young Republicans of Virginia and one of two Black members of the committee, was especially outraged with a motion to delay discussion on the proposal, calling the move “disgusting.”

“Let them vote!” Turner shouted. “We talk about voter integrity and we’re trying to suppress the vote. This is exactly what this is.”

Holdouts on the committee argued they needed more time to study the proposal with the convention a little over two weeks away. John Massoud, chair of the party’s committee in the 6th Congressional District, said he had spoken to Orthodox Jews in the area.

“Each of them has told me there is no ban on them voting,” Massoud said. “We’ve been doing conventions for quite a long period of time, and this has not come up before......I’m not sure what the problem is. And I suggest that every person tone down the dispepsia.”

The issue may eventually be moot under a bill passed with some Republican support this year by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam. The bill, sponsored by Del. Dan Helmer (D-Fairfax), will require parties to allow absentee voting in their nomination methods beginning in 2024. Parties must accommodate active duty soldiers, people temporarily living overseas, college students, people with a disability, or people who’ve contracted a communicable disease. The bill doesn’t ban conventions outright, but would likely make them more complicated. 

Ken Reid, second vice0chair of the Republican Party in Norfolk and a member of that city’s B'nai Israel Congregation, said he and roughly 15 other members of the synagogue would now have to sit out the convention. He lamented a faction of the party that he said had failed to keep up with Virginia’s changing demographics, including a small but growing Orthodox community.

“They may say that they want to grow the base of the party, but then they do things like this that essentially goes the other way,” Reid said. “What can I say? They're not anti Semitic, they're just anti realist.” 

Gubernatorial hopefuls Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), Glenn Youngkin, and Peter Doran all panned the move.

“Virginians should not have to choose between practicing their faith and participating in our democracy,”  Cox said in a Tweet.

Youngkin called the move a "major mistake."

“We must be a party that welcomes everyone and anyone who embraces conservative values,” Youngkin said in a Tweet

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include reaction from Glenn Youngkin and Peter Doran. We've also updated the terminology from 'Orthodox' to 'observant' to include other branches of American Judaism that observe the Sabbath.   

Ben Paviour covers state politics for VPM News with a focus on accountability journalism.
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