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Cutting the Red Tape that Passes for Voter Registration in NJ

Quick quiz: Which seems easier -- registering through the DMV or printing out an online form and mailing it in?

Two new proposals could make it easier for voters in New Jersey to cast their ballots in time for the general election next November.

State lawmakers released two bills from the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Monday. Both bills include automatic voter registration as part of a driver’s license application or renewal at the DMV and give 17 year-olds (who will be 18 by the general election) the chance to vote in the June primary.

Both bills received overwhelming support from the assembly members in attendance as well as from the League of Women Voters.

Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, and Somerset) who sponsored A-3591, the “New Voter Empowerment Act,” says he hopes the measures will get more people involved in the democratic process. According to a 2014 U.S. Census Bureau survey, 30 percent of 18-to-29-year olds in New Jersey are not registered to vote. Zwicker says if the governor approves, the new laws could potentially add 23,000 young people to the 5.5 million people already registered in the state.

Currently, in order to register to vote in New Jersey, an individual has to get a form from the Division of Elections website, the DMV, or the county Commissioner of Registration’s office. It must then be completed and mailed or hand-delivered to a local Commissioners of Registration Office. There is no process for registering online and early voting is only allowed through an in-person absentee ballot hand delivered to the office of the county clerk.

Adding another step to the process, New Jersey has closed primary elections, which means only Democrats and Republicans can vote. The state did away with the “independent” designation in 2005 but allows voters to register as “unaffiliated.” “Unaffiliated” votera must declare a party before they can cast their vote. This can be done at the polling precinct itself, or by submitting a separate form prior to the election.

Sandy Matson, legislative agent with the League of Women voters who testified for A1944 at the State House, says New Jersey is long overdue for an upgrade to the voting-registration process. She says the status quo is just too much of a hassle.

“First you have to get that piece of paper, then you have to fill it out with all the same information that you just gave at the DMV and then mail it in,” Matson says “this is 2016. It makes more sense to just do it there.”

Matson says the DMV is already equipped to handle automatic registration, so it wouldn’t cost the state anything to implement and applicants could opt out if they desired.

As it stands, four states (California, Oregon, West Virginia, and Vermont) already have automatic voter registration laws and 28 others are considering similar legislation according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

New Jersey came close to joining those other states in 2015 when the Legislature passed the Democracy Act which, along with automatic voter registration, would have opened a two-week early-voting period and created an online system for voters to update their information. Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the act, writing in his veto that the bill “will not further democracy, but endanger the State’s longstanding and proven election system.”

Christie also vetoed early-voting measures in 2013, setting New Jersey apart from the 33 other states that allow in-person voting prior to election day.

Despite the governor’s history with voting laws, Matson says she’s excited about the potential changes to the voting process and is looking forward to the primary elections next month. But before anything reaches Christie’s desk, identical legislation in the Senate (S-2116 and S-1228) awaits further committee action.

Carly Sitrin is an editorial intern at NJ Spotlight.

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