According to a tweet from Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, approximately 13 percent of voters ended up casting a ballot in this past Tuesday’s primary election. In other words, 87 percent of New Jersey’s opinion was not factored into the results.
I find that incredible. When confronted with these numbers, many will be quick to dismiss it as representative of voter disenchantment with “party politics as usual.” Normally, I’d agree and move on, but this year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary had a progressive outsider, Jim Johnson, as well as a progressive congressman, John Wisniewski. I wonder how much of the lack of voter engagement is due to procrastination and lack of convenience in primary voting, rather than simple voter indifference.
Some people I spoke to were unaware they could declare a party affiliation at the polling place if they were currently registered as “unaffiliated.” Others couldn’t make it to the distant college town they had registered to vote in.
A mail-in ballot obviously solves the latter issue, but people are often unaware of the procedure for obtaining one. While dealing with the pressures of today’s hectic society, they most likely neglect the mailer they receive, or it’s sent to an old address. Others probably assume mail-in ballots are only for those who will not be physically present in New Jersey on Election Day, when in fact anyone can use them. I personally began using mail-in ballots this year and will never look back. I don’t have to worry about lines, parking, driving, or double checking that I actually pressed the right buttons. It’s a wonderful way to vote — and postage is free!
It’s time for New Jersey to take voter registration into the 21st century. There are a few things that can be done. First, we need to deal with the initial voter registration. This should happen automatically when someone obtains their initial New Jersey driver’s license or state ID. It should be included in renewals as well, in order to help those who aren’t registered to vote, but already have a license. The key here is to default the license application/renewal to complete voter registration, unless the applicant specifically opts out. There are plenty of psychological studies that explain why it should be defaulted to register to vote, instead of requiring the applicant to take the initiative.
Next, we need to deal with the processes that I think are responsible for low primary turnouts. Changing your party affiliation and changing your address is annoying for most. These need to become fully online processes that do not involve any aspect of printing or mailing. One can certainly make the argument that New Jersey has made the process fairly simple. However, in a world where I can have my groceries delivered to my doorstep with the click of a button in less than 24 hours, our elections processes pale in comparison.
There already seems to be some sort of online database where I’m able to check my registration, affiliation, and polling place. I’m not a web programmer, but I don’t think it would be very difficult to incorporate a user form to update fields in this database after review and verification by an official. A more radical idea would be to follow in the footsteps of 23 states that have some sort of open primary, removing the need to flip your registration every time you find that a candidate from another party suits your priorities.
I think a modernization of New Jersey’s electoral processes is past due. I can’t think of anyone being against more convenience for voters — except party bosses and special-interest groups. Regardless of whether or not New Jersey modernizes its processes, there absolutely needs to be more public advertisement of the convenience of mail-in ballots, as well as detailing the processes and rules for primary voting currently in existence.