Bill Galvin

William Galvin

BOSTON — Benjamin Bloomenthal is weighing a run for a seat in the state House of Representatives, but a quirk of the calendar could prevent from participating in the statewide primary next fall.

That's because one of the prospective dates for this year’s primary, Tuesday, Sept. 18, falls on Yom Kippur, when he and other observant Jews would be unable to campaign, or perhaps even cast ballots, due to religious considerations.

Moving the primary a week back to Sept. 11 would conflict with Rosh Hashanah, the two-day observance of the Jewish New Year that starts at sundown.

By state law, the primary must be held on the seventh Tuesday before the general election, in part to comply with federal rules for mailing overseas ballots.

"By holding the primary that day, it comes as a disadvantage to myself and members of my campaign staff who are Jewish," said Bloomenthal, of Acton, who is challenging incumbent Rep. Cory Atkins in the 14th Middlesex District.

"Moreover, it impedes the ability of Jewish voters to participate in the primary, as they would be preparing for the holidays," he told state elections officials during a hearing on Tuesday.

Most observant Jews do not work during the holidays, which means they would be unable to campaign if the primary date isn't moved. Some strict adherents could refrain from going to the polls and voting.

Torrent of email input

Secretary of State Bill Galvin, the state's top election official, said he never intended to set the primary on a religious holiday and plans to change it, as is required by state law. He expects to make a decision soon and is leaning toward the first week in September, either the Tuesday or Thursday after Labor Day.

"The most important thing is that we have to have the ballots ready for the November election," Galvin, a Democrat, said in an interview. "We can't run the risk of not having ballots available for military overseas personnel, so I'm anxious to get a decision made quickly."

Over the past two weeks, Galvin's office has sought input from voters, candidates or others with a stake in the primary. A public hearing was held at the Statehouse on Tuesday.

The suggestion that a primary be held on either holiday was enough to prompt a torrent of emails to Galvin’s office, mostly from Jewish voters calling on him to change it.

Mollie Kimchi-Schwartz, of Cambridge, quipped that holding the state primary then would be "roughly the equivalent of holding an election on Christmas Eve for Jewish citizens."

"It also disadvantages Jewish candidates, campaign managers, staffers, and volunteers who will be forced to choose between running an effective Election Day field campaign and their religious obligations," she added in an email to Galvin’s office.

The nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Massachusetts is urging Galvin to move quickly on a new date, suggesting Sept. 13 or Sept. 20, both Thursdays.

"We would recommend that whichever date you choose, you do so as soon as possible and allocate resources to a vigorous public awareness campaign to make sure that voters know when the vote is occurring," wrote league President Mary Ann Ashton in a letter to Galvin.

Expanding early voting to include state primaries, she noted, would help the state avoid these kinds of conflicts. Currently early voting is only allowed two weeks ahead of the November general election.

"The availability of early voting would allow the commonwealth to continue with this primary as is routine on Sept. 18 while allowing ample opportunity for those observing the Jewish holidays to vote in advance," she said.

Moving the primary

A host of Democratic and Republican candidates are vying for congressional and state offices in the next primary. The contests include a race between 14 Democrats seeking to replace outgoing U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas in the 3rd Congressional District that includes the Merrimack Valley.

Galvin doesn't need legislative approval to change the date. The Legislature, which was previously required to sign off on changes to primary election dates, ceded that authority several years ago, along with the requirement that he change the date if it conflicts with a religious holiday.

Massachusetts has moved its primaries several times in the past to accommodate religious holidays and reduce election costs. In some cases, election officials have broken with tradition by holding primaries on a Thursday, instead of a Tuesday.

In 2016, the date was moved to Sept. 8 to give elections officials time to comply with a federal law requiring overseas ballots to be mailed at least 45 days before the general election. In 2012, it was moved to Sept. 11 over a conflict with Rosh Hashanah.

Several proposals being considered by the Legislature seek to change conflicts by holding the primary in the spring or late-August. None of those bills, however, appear to have gained much support.

Aaron Agulnek, director of legislative affairs at the Jewish Community Relations Council, said he isn't concerned Jewish voters will be sidelined.

"We're confident that the secretary will move the date, my guess is to a Thursday, as in the past," he said. "The fact is the law requires it."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

 

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