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Jewish Missourians urged to vote absentee during pandemic

(AP) — Rabbis are encouraging Jewish Missourians to vote absentee during the coronavirus pandemic because their religious tradition “values life above virtually all else.”

A letter signed by nearly three dozen rabbis and other leaders posted this week on the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis website expresses concern that going to the polls could endanger lives. Elections in Missouri are scheduled for June 2, Aug. 4 and Nov. 3.

The Jewish leaders cited a “deeply-held religious belief to remain home on days in which elections are held and that such a belief qualifies one under the Missouri law to vote in any regional, state or federal elections via absentee ballot.”

“Our Jewish tradition values human life above virtually all else,” the letter states.

Missouri is among 17 states requiring an excuse for voting absentee. The popularity of forms of early voting tends to fall along party lines. While Democrats say it encourages civic engagement, Republicans fear it raises the risk of voter fraud. President Donald Trump has encouraged the skepticism, saying in a televised briefing that “a lot of people cheat with mail-in voting.”

Asked last month about the possibility of expanding absentee voting during the pandemic, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, called it “more of a political issue than it is anything” and said fears of spreading or contracting the coronavirus were not among the permissible reasons.

But a religious belief is a different matter. Missouri law allows casting an absentee ballot due to “religious belief or practice.” The secretary of state’s office leaves it up to local election authorities to determine the validity of the excuse, said Maura Browning, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, also a Republican.

St. Louis County is home to the vast majority of Missouri’s estimated 64,000 Jewish residents. Eric Fey, Democratic director of elections for the county, said he and Republican director Rick Stream agreed that religious belief or practice “is a valid excuse for voting absentee.”

“Under Missouri law any voter with a sincerely held religious belief, that would prevent them from going to the polling place, may vote by absentee ballot,” Fey said in an email.

Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, cited concern that arose after Wisconsin required in-person voting during its April presidential primary. At least 67 people who tested positive for COVID-19 since that election reported that they had been at the polls, but Wisconsin health officials have warned against assuming that’s how they became infected. Many of them had also been other places where they could have been exposed.

Last weekend’s Democratic presidential primary in Kansas was conducted exclusively by mail because of the pandemic.

“We strongly encourage people to vote via absentee ballot,” Neiss said. “We believe that should be the right of every citizen and that no excuse should be necessary.”

Several county clerks, including some Republicans, are urging the Missouri Legislature to change the law to allow absentee voting this year.

Greene County Clerk Shane Schoeller, a Republican, said he had heard from many voters concerned about their safety. He said they questioned how they could comply with government-directed orders on social distancing “and also simultaneously comply with our current voting laws that do not offer a valid absentee voting option,” Schoeller said in an email.

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