After a series of low-turnout elections in New Jersey — and a recent high-profile spat over voting rights between two potential presidential candidates — Democrats who control the state Legislature want to fast-track an overhaul of state election laws this month.
But with Gov. Chris Christie unlikely to approve their proposal in the spotlight of a likely presidential campaign, the issue could ultimately end up going before voters in the form of a proposed constitutional amendment.
Democrats have in recent years been able to use ballot questions to successfully get around the Republican governor’s opposition to their legislative agenda, including a land-preservation funding initiative that won voter approval last year and an increase of the state’s minimum wage that was passed by referendum in 2013.
This time around, the voting-law overhaul would likely go before voters next fall at the same time they will go to the polls to choose the next president.
“If the governor vetoes this, we’ll have to talk about taking it to the voters,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) warned yesterday during a State House news conference held to promote the proposed changes.
Among the ideas being pitched by legislative leaders from both the Assembly and Senate are an expansion of the state’s early-voting accommodations, automatic voter registration by the Motor Vehicle Commission, providing more opportunities to cast ballots by mail, and offering secure online voter registration.
Those changes are intended to make it easier for New Jersey residents to find the time to vote as more and more of their hours during a prolonged sluggish economy are being taken up by longer commutes to work and, in many cases, working multiple jobs to make ends meet, the bill’s advocates said.
“This bill is about making certain that New Jersey has improved access to voting,” said Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden).
But also under the banner of the “Democracy Act” that the leaders say will be formally introduced next week is a proposal to change how U.S. Senate vacancies are filled. That comes as one of New Jersey’s Democratic U.S. senators faces a federal corruption indictment and after Christie under the current law in 2013 appointed a Republican to replace the late Democratic U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg after he died in office.
That component of the proposal and the intention of leadership to rush it through the legislative process in the final weeks before the July 1 deadline for a new state budget led to questions about the true motives of the Democrats yesterday.
“This isn’t a group of political scientists at a seminar coming up with objective proposals,” said Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union).
The proposed voting-law overhaul also comes just weeks after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee for president in 2016, supported similar voting measures during a speech in Texas. That later drew a response from Christie, who vetoed Democratic attempts to expand early-voting opportunities here in 2013, citing fraud and cost concerns.
But Democratic legislative leaders said yesterday the proposed voting-law overhaul has been in the works for roughly a year, with advocates like the New Jersey Working Families Alliance making it a priority issue.
“It’s not something we’ve rushed,” said Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson).
[related]“It may look like this is a quick turnaround, but this is months of work,” said Analilia Mejia, executive director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance.
Though a bill is not yet available for review, the leaders said it will be a sweeping proposal.
The measure will seek to provide more hours and locations for early voting; utilize more technology to help overseas military-service members cast their ballots; permit online voter registration; and expand free vote-by-mail services.
It would also set up automatic voter registration when a state-issued driver’s license is obtained; allow same-day voter registration for general elections; and permit 17-year-olds to register to vote in anticipation of their 18th birthday if the next election will occur on or after their birthday.
The bill will also include, the leaders said, language to tighten up handicapped-accessible polling locations; expansion of non-English voter-registration and voting accommodations; and strengthen anti-voter fraud protections.
And on the issue of filling U.S. Senate vacancies, the measure will seek to eliminate the need for special elections like the one held in October 2013 to fill Lautenberg’s seat by requiring any office vacant for more than 70 days before the next election to be filled during that election. The governor would still have the right to appoint someone to fill a U.S. Senate seat temporarily, but they would have to come from the same political party as the senator who previously held the seat.
Earlier this year, incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez was indicted by a federal grand jury on corruption charges. He did not step down and has vowed to vigorously fight the charges, but they threaten a seat Democrats expected to hold through early 2019 after Menendez won reelection in 2012.
Supporters of the bill yesterday said the changes are long overdue given some of the state’s low-turnout elections in recent years, including the 2013 special U.S. Senate election won by Democrat Cory Booker after just 25 percent of New Jersey’s registered voters turned out to vote.
The gubernatorial contest that year, which saw Christie easily prevail against Democratic challenger Barbara Buono, only drew 40 percent turnout.
And the primary election held earlier this month for all 80-seats in the state Assembly drew less than 5 percent of the state’s registered voters to the polls.
“People are working two or three jobs. People are so busy now trying to (provide) for their families,” Sweeney said. “I’m curious to see who’s going to oppose this.”
And he downplayed concerns that it could be the state’s election map, which has proven to be heavily skewed toward protecting incumbents since it was redrawn in 2011 that is depressing turnout.
A spokesman for Christie declined comment on the proposal yesterday, citing office policy to not weigh in on pending legislation.
Bramnick, the Republican leader seeking to retake control of the Assembly this year, promised the bill, when drafted, would get a full vetting.
“There are many proposals here so we’ll look at all of them on their merits,” he said.
But Bramnick said the provision applying to U.S. Senate vacancies and the rushed timeline were causes for concern.
“It’s another example of this isn’t a group of political scientists, this is leadership in a Democratic Party,” he said. “You wouldn’t be rushing a good bill.”
Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) also said he’ll need to see the bill first before commenting at length, but added from what he’s heard so far he’s not convinced it will improve election participation.
“Their proposal does nothing to increase voter turnout or advance democracy in New Jersey,” Kean Jr. said.