Can Automatic Voter Registration Fill Out NJ’s Anemic Voter Rolls?

Both houses pass versions of a bill that would automatically register voters when they visit motor vehicles — or other state agencies that interact with the public

New Jersey is likely to become the 11th state to automatically register voters when they visit motor vehicles facilities, and go even further by potentially allowing all state agencies to register members of the public with whom they interact.

The passage on Thursday by both the Senate and the Assembly of S-481/A2014, implementing automatic voter registration, is one of a number of bills lawmakers — primarily Democrats — are pushing this year in an effort to increase public participation in the voting process. The Assembly, meanwhile, passed a second bill, S-1218/A-1521, to expand the right to vote in a primary to 17-year-olds who will turn 18 on or before the date of an upcoming general election.

Sponsors and advocates of AVR, which would automatically register a person to vote when they get a driver’s license, permit, or nondriver’s identification card at the Motor Vehicle Commission or other state offices that may choose to register people, heralded it as a boost for democracy and way to increase participation in elections. Republican opponents called it unnecessary and warned it could lead to cases of voting fraud.

Governor’s signature likely

Gov. Phil Murphy is likely to sign both measures, as he supported these and other voting expansion reforms during last year’s election campaign.

Republicans sought and failed to amend the automatic voter registration measure in both houses. They wanted to limit the state agencies that could register voters to only the Motor Vehicle Commission, require those being registered to attest to their eligibility to vote, and increase penalties for fraudulent registration by making it a crime of the second degree, which typically involves at least some period of incarceration.

Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Passaic)
“Voter fraud in New Jersey is real,” said Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Passaic) and the former county clerk there who oversaw elections. “It happens more often than you know.”

Cases in Atlantic City, Paterson, and Old Bridge were cited. In at least two of those, the fraud involved vote-by-mail ballots and had nothing to do with improper registration, said Myrna Perez, leader of the Voting Rights and Elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice, who attended a press conference Republicans held prior to the votes on the legislation as well as the voting sessions.

“It is really disappointing to see voter-fraud myths being peddled in New Jersey,” she said. “It is very rare that a voter intentionally commits voter fraud.”

Fewer opportunities for fraud

Perez said the legislation actually “reduces fraud opportunities.” It cleans up the voting rolls by updating a person’s address each time they visit a motor vehicle agency or other state offices that provide registration. And the bill, as well as current practices, has mechanisms and processes to prevent ineligible people from being registered.

That’s a concern of a number of Republicans. Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) noted that legislation is pending that would allow undocumented immigrants to get a driver’s license and asked whether an AVR system would have “any protections built in” to prevent those ineligible to vote from being “inadvertently entered into the system.” Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (R-Monmouth) called the bill “a solution in search of a problem,” saying that more than 90 percent of those eligible to vote in New Jersey are already registered.

“We want to ensure that registered voters account for not just 90 percent, but 100 percent of those eligible,” said Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic), one of a host of sponsors of the legislation. “It seems to me we are affirming democracy … we are ensuring that the discordant tones which make up this great state are heard even louder and turned into a symphony, from the cacophony many would argue it currently is.”

The bill would change the current system, which asks those applying for or renewing a license at a motor vehicle agency, whether they want to register to vote, to one that would register eligible people automatically unless they say they do not want to register. Former Gov. Chris Christie had vetoed a similar measure, applying only to MVC offices, in the last legislative session.

Historically low youth turnout

“Youth turnout in elections has been at an historic low in recent years,” said Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-Monmouth), another bill sponsor. “By making it easier for them to register, hopefully we can create a more conscientious mindset towards voting amongst our youngest generation.”

Overall voter turnout has been largely declining for years in New Jersey, with fewer than four in 10 registered voters casting ballots in last year’s gubernatorial election.

Automatic voter registration could cost the state more, although the Office of Legislative Services was unable to calculate a cost. Last year, Christie said the bill he vetoed would have cost the state $1 million initially and $400,000 a year. Schaer said a more modern, computerized registration system might save the state money, but even if there is an additional cost, it would be “de minimus for the benefit received.”

New Jersey Working Families Alliance, a grassroots political organization advocating for workers and their families and for progressive causes, praised the passage of both bills.

“Champions of these measures should be commended for their foresight in advocating for smart and necessary voting reforms that are not only proactive but have proven to increase registration and participation in the states that have adopted similar measures,” said Analilia Mejia, the group’s executive director.

New Jersey Working Families had pushed for expanding the measure from automatic registration at MVC only to include other offices that have contact with the public if the Secretary of State approves. These might include unemployment and social services offices. Currently, four states either require or allow automatic registration through other agencies. Committees added that language to the bills last week.

Several other organizations, including the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, and League of Women Voters of New Jersey also back the bill.

“New Jersey took a huge leap forward today, and we are hopeful that our state will emerge as a nationwide leader in ensuring accessibility to the ballot,” said Jesse Burns, executive director of the NJ LWV. “Automatic voter registration is smart, tested technology that has proven to be secure, boost registration, clean up our rolls, and save money.”

Empowering new voters

The other voter expansion measure that advanced on Thursday was the New Voter Empowerment Act, another effort at getting more young people to vote. It would let 17-year-olds cast ballots in the primary preceding the first general election in which they would be eligible to vote. It cleared the Assembly 56-17 and awaits final passage by the Senate.

“Young people in New Jersey are eager to raise their voices and make a difference,” said Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Somerset). He said that more than 23,000 New Jersey 17-year-olds will turn 18 after the primary this year, but before the general election. “Under this legislation, they would be able to vote in both elections. It’s an important step forward to fully empower thousands of new voters every year.”

If this measure is enacted, New Jersey would join 21 states and the District of Columbia in allowing 17-year-olds who will turn 18 during the interim period between a primary or caucus and the general election to participate in the nomination process.