The New Jersey Legislature voted last week to extend the right to vote by mail to thousands of residents who otherwise may not have voted in upcoming state elections. Senate President Steve Sweeney and the Democratic members of the Senate and Assembly who voted for the bill deserve credit for standing up for voting rights and for underserved communities.
Here’s why this bill was important: The 2019 state Assembly elections will almost definitely be the lowest turnout statewide elections in years. In 2015, the last time New Jersey had an “off-off year” election, statewide voter turnout was just 22 percent — the lowest in state history.
Data shows that as voter turnout decreases, the voters whose voices are silenced are people of color living in underserved communities. This creates an unvirtuous cycle of neglect. Politicians and political parties put little effort into communicating with these voters about lower-profile elections because they believe these voters are less likely to turnout. Then (surprise, surprise) when these voters turn out at a low rate, the political powers-that-be find confirmation of their bias.
I know this because I’ve lived it. As the leader of Project Ready, a nonprofit which focuses on increasing voting rights, I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve spoken with someone in Newark about an upcoming local election, only to hear that they never received a single communication about it from a campaign or local government. We simply cannot expect people to vote when we fail to engage them. Our organization recently ran a campaign to remedy this, by registering more than 1,000 Newarkers to vote by mail ahead of the recent school board election.
Our efforts made a difference, but we need government to step up to the plate in a bigger way, by enacting common-sense democratic reforms that give more people access to the ballot. In Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, every voter receives a vote-by-mail ballot for each election. Studies have shown that allowing people to vote by mail, from the comfort of their own homes, is hands down the best way to increase voter turnout. In fact, these three “vote-at-home” states produced the highest turnout of all — 81 percent on average.
Limitations in New Jersey
In New Jersey, we’re not yet providing vote-by-mail ballots to everyone, only to those who request one. But, thanks to the legislation passed by Democratic legislators, at least we’ll now provide a vote-by-mail ballot to every voter who has requested one.
If you’re asking yourself how anyone could oppose this bill, trust me: You’re not alone. But that’s exactly what Senate Republicans did, citing a litany of concerns straight out of the Trump playbook. The real reason Republicans are crying foul is that they’re afraid of increasing voter participation. Yes — data shows that as turnout has increased, so has the Democratic margin of victory. But that analysis misses the point. If Republicans want to earn the favor of a broader pool of voters, they should change their policies to appeal to more people, not seek to hold down the number of people who can vote. This is the same destructive, racist motivation that spawned the poll tax.
The truth is that by making it easier for people living in underserved communities to vote, we can elect candidates who reflect the values of a broader, more diverse set of constituents — not just a privileged few. Increasing voter participation creates a virtuous cycle; more people voting means electing better leaders, which leads to policies that benefit more people.
New Jersey isn’t there yet. But last week’s vote was a step in the right direction, and a win for democracy.