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Will Making It Easier to Vote Increase Participation in NJ Elections?

Among the reforms introduced by several bills: automatic voter registration when residents renew their licenses and a secure website that will let them vote online

nj voting
Credit: Alexander F. Yuan

New Jersey lawmakers have begun moving legislation meant to increase participation in elections and give voters more information on which to base their votes, part of a long-sought effort by Democrats to expand voting here.

A package of bills is being considered by the state Senate that would provide for automatic voter registration through the Motor Vehicle Commission, allow for secure online voter registration, and expand early voting in the state, among other things.

The most significant of the bills advancing so far is one that Democrats twice sent to the desk of former Gov. Chris Christie, only to have it vetoed. S-481 would seek to boost the voter rolls by automatically registering people to vote when they apply for a driver’s license or permit.

Christie had balked at the effort, calling it unnecessary and saying it would cost the state $1 million at first and $400,000 a year to maintain. But the bill’s sponsors said the state should do what it can to open access to voting to as many people as possible.

“Every American citizen has the right to vote, and automatic registration at license application or renewal will make it easier to access that right,” said Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), a prime sponsor of the bill, which cleared the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee on Monday. “This law will make it easier for citizens to register to vote and encourage greater participation in the democratic process while protecting vulnerable individuals.”

License to vote

Currently, when a person visits a Motor Vehicle Commission location to apply for or renew a driver’s license, they are given the option of also registering to vote. The bill would change that system to automatically register, or update voter registration, unless the driver opts out of registering.

Scott Novakowski, associate counsel at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said it is important to try to attract more people to vote, given the continuing decline in turnout — last year’s gubernatorial turnout set a record low. In addition to beefing up voter rolls, this bill would help to make “the electorate look more like the state as a whole.”

Ten other states and the District of Columbia have already passed similar laws, said Myrna Perez, director of the voting program at the Brennan Center for Justice. In Oregon, the number of people registering to vote each month quadrupled after an automatic voter-registration system was put in place.

“This bill will modernize our voter registration process, making voting more accessible for working New Jersey families, keeping our voter information accurate and private, and improve the security of our elections,” said Sen. James Beach (D-Camden), another bill sponsor and chairman of the committee. “I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate and the Assembly to advance our elections modernization agenda and move legislation to Gov. Murphy’s desk.”

As part of his campaign last year, Gov. Phil Murphy endorsed automatic voting registration as one of five reforms to strengthening democracy in the state. Two of his other suggested reforms also cleared the Senate committee on Monday.

Online voting

One of those bills, S-589, also seeks to make it easier to register to vote. This measure would have the secretary of state create a secure internet site where those eligible could register to vote using an online form. The registrant would have to provide certain identifying information, including the number of his driver’s license or nondriver identification card, and the voter registration system would be linked to the MVC database to allow for a crosscheck of the records.

Perez said New Jersey is late to adopt an online system, as 37 other states, both red and blue, already offer online voter registration.

“It’s extraordinarily cost effective, offering a great return on a small investment,” she said. “It’s cheaper to maintain than a paper system … This is a commonsense and easy-to-implement bill.”

Sen. Samuel Thompson (R-Middlesex) cast the only votes against both the MVC and online registration bills, saying he was worried about possible fraud and hacking into voter rolls.

That’s something the state can avoid, Perez said, by ensuring the system is “designed in a very secure way.”

Early voting

The other bill that Murphy endorsed and the committee released, S-549, would require counties to offer early voting in person beginning 15 days before an election through two days before it. While there has been some early voting in the state, typically at the county clerk’s office, the legislation expands that and sets specific parameters for the voting. Each county would have to designate between three and seven locations spread throughout the county where people could cast ballots. Those locations would have to be open every day, between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

“Early voting is needed in New Jersey,” said Jesse Burns, director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. She said early voting helps balloting go more smoothly by shortening lines on election day. The current system of casting ballots early in only one or two locations is “not serving the number of voters and the limited time window to cast that vote by mail ballot is currently not serving the number of voters who want it.”

“I think we need to expand opportunities for people to vote,” agreed Beach, a former county clerk. “I have heard many people say, ‘I don’t want to vote by mail. I don’t know if my vote really counts.’ There are a lot of reasons for expanding opportunities to vote.”

Although the measure cleared the committee 3-2, it is likely to be amended to address several concerns raised by those who testified. Those concerns include the ability to find enough locations for early voting, the ability to find enough poll workers during that time period, and the cost and nuisance of printing multiple voter registration books for each location.

Primary voting

The state government committee last month endorsed another voting expansion that Murphy has said he favors. S-1218, which Beach is cosponsoring, would give a 17-year-old who registers to vote the ability to cast a ballot in a primary election if he would turn 18 by the date of the general election. That measure is awaiting final passage by the full Senate.

Another Beach election-related measure advanced on Monday. S-1974 would require every candidate for state, county, municipal, and school offices to provide a functioning email address for the candidate on his nominating petition. The goal of the bill, which passed the Senate 30-8, is to give voters and organizations an easy way to contact candidates. Now, a candidate must provide an address, but that can be a post office box, making it hard for the public to reach a candidate.

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