Jewish groups are expressing anger that government officials, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have scheduled a special election in Orange County to fall on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days of the year for Jews.
The Oct. 4 election is to fill the congressional seat left vacant when Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) accepted the chair of the federal Securities and Exchange Commission.
Area Jewish leaders estimate that more than half of Orange County's 80,000 to 100,000 Jews live in Cox's former 48th District, which includes Irvine, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, among other cities. Cox has held the seat since 1988.
Holding the election during the Jewish New Year will disenfranchise scores of Jewish voters who would otherwise go to the polls, said Shalom Elcott, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Orange County. Elcott, who co-authored an Aug. 16 letter to Schwarzenegger urging him to reschedule, said O.C. Jews had been marginalized.
"Somebody made a conscious decision that the Jewish vote doesn't matter," he said.
On Oct. 4, many Jews will be in synagogue with loved ones in "contemplative prayer and not in voting booths," said Rabbi Marc Dworkin, director of the American Jewish Committee, Orange County chapter. He called the timing of the election for the 48th District "outrageous, more than insensitive."
Officials characterize such criticisms as unfair, contending that they were simply hamstrung by limited scheduling options. Local officials also pledged to pursue remedies, such as distributing more absentee ballots.
In an interview Thursday, Orange County Registrar of Voters Steve Rodermund said he had been aware that the primary would fall on Rosh Hashanah, and that he discussed the matter with his staff as well as with staffers for the Orange County Board of Supervisors
Rodermund said he advocated the chosen date as the best alternative available, given the need to fill the empty seat and the constraints posed by the holiday season and the statewide special election on Nov. 8. The Oct. 4 election for Cox's seat is a primary, where voters choose who will represent their political parties. The next and final step, the general election, is scheduled for Dec. 6.
Schwarzenegger ultimately is responsible for setting election dates, but his office said he merely deferred to the wishes of local officials. When asked whether Schwarzenegger could have chosen a different date or whether he now regretted scheduling the primary on Rosh Hashanah, a spokeswoman said she had no comment. Once set, the election date cannot be changed, she added.
To the extent that the governor's office has not sufficiently responded to local Jewish groups to explain its position, the Schwarzenegger braintrust has made a political miscalculation, said Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.
"This can turn a relatively small snafu into a much bigger one," said Sonenshein, who has recently written articles about how Schwarzenegger's transformation into an "AM talk radio Republican" has eroded his support in the Jewish community. "One of the great things about saying, 'We screwed up,' is that people are quite understanding of screw-ups, especially if you're trying to fix them," Sonenshein said.
Larry Greenfield, California director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said it was "unfortunate" the primary fell on Rosh Hashanah. He plans to send e-mails to his organization's estimated 500 Orange County members telling them that his group will work with the governor's office and registrar of voters to ensure high Jewish participation.
That's the stated goal of the Orange County Registrar Rodermund, too. Ideas under consideration include setting up some polling places where Jews could cast their ballots early, said Rodermund, who added that he looked forward working closely with area Jewish groups.
"We were really constrained by what the law allows," Rodermund said. "Our objective now is to work with the Jewish community to ensure that we minimize this impact to the maximum extent possible so they can exercise their right to vote."
Although disappointed about what happened, Joyce Greenspan, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, Orange County/Long Beach, said she would work to mitigate the damage. The ADL, she said, plans to assist in the distribution of thousands of absentee ballots in synagogues and at other Jewish agencies.