Op-Ed: New Jersey Must Keep Democracy Robust, Facilitate Voting from Home

A call for safe vote-from-home options to be instituted in time for the presidential and congressional primaries

“These are the times that try men’s souls.”

 Like these words written by Thomas Paine in 1776, we know that our world will never be the same. Our health, our jobs and economy, our survival are all threatened.

The time for action is now. We can “flatten the curve” to delay the spread of the COVID-19 virus. We can provide massive resources to keep people and businesses afloat.

But can we ignore the threats to democracy when our society is shut down? The answer is “no.”

The first challenge is to protect our elections. And, we must do so in time for July 7, which Gov. Phil Murphy yesterday announced as the new date for presidential and congressional primaries in New Jersey, instead of June 2. The pandemic does not change that challenge— it simply means workable alternatives need to be rapid and laser-focused. Like the rallying cry for personal health, “wash your hands frequently,” the rallying cry for election health must be “vote at home.”

Citizens are not waiting for governments to act. They are gathering on Zoom and other platforms to make their voices heard and lend support.

Over 600 people tuned into a virtual summit, titled “Unrig Roundtable: Why Vote at Home Matters,” convened by Represent.Us. The discussion was livestreamed on April 2, and featured former Maryland Lt. Governor and Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, and Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman.

Access to ballot box should be ‘unfettered’

“It is important at this point in time that we have unfettered and uninhibited access to the ballot box,” said Steele. “We own this franchise. It was given to us under the Constitution. It is the way we define our government. Those buildings and those officials don’t get to define the game — we do. You got to stand up; you got to be loud. Work with the secretaries of state. Help them put in place the infrastructure. Volunteer to be a part of the solution in changing the direction we are now headed when it comes to elections in this country.”

For New Jersey, vote-at-home means vote-by-mail. It does not mean voting on the internet. For those who point to the online 2020 U.S. census, the comparison breaks down. Census data are meant to be public; voting is private. Internet voting disenfranchises eligible voters without computers or who are not web-savvy. And, it leaves out how easily the internet can be hacked.

We have a good vote-by-mail system in our county election boards. That system of paper ballots needs to be strengthened — and the election boards need to know the public is behind them. The state has the money for reliable optical scanning machines to verify and tally hand-marked ballots. Statewide standards for our counties need to be established.

There is no time to waste in implementing this infrastructure. We should not accept delays.  Every New Jersey resident — Democrat, Republican and independent alike — needs to urge Murphy to call a special or extraordinary session of the Legislature. And, the Legislature needs to set out the conditions to meet virtually and vote remotely.

Legislation ready for action

Two bills in the Assembly deserve this special attention. They call for companion bills in the Senate, to be debated and, if necessary, modified. But let them be signed into law in time for our elections.

A- 3591, co-sponsored by Assemblymen Andrew Zwicker and Dan Benson, creates statewide standards for counties to follow. The bill provides protections for the voter and methods to ensure that questionable ballots are retained and adequately inspected. More than that, it would make information available to increase public awareness of voting by mail.

The second bill (A-2175) sponsored by Assembly members Raj Mukherji, Annette Chaparro, and James Kennedy, removes barriers to voting. Most significantly, the bill requires the secretary of state to establish a website for online voter registration.

Enabling citizen enfranchisement and voting safely at home, with clear and enforceable requirements, are the best ways to keep democracy robust during this dangerous time of social distancing and isolation. The experience of the secretaries of state in Colorado and Washington State, as told in the “Unrig” Summit, shows that mail-in voting increases participation in elections. We can hope that such experiences will also open minds — around the country and in New Jersey too — to the utility of additional reforms like ranked-choice voting.

In times of crisis, we also draw comfort and assurance from the past. The quotation from Thomas Paine ends with words that speak to us across time:

“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. … Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.”