Opinion: Five ideas NJ should enact now to make voting easier

Shennell McCloud | November 12, 2020 | Opinion
The Garden State has made a good first step toward ending inequitable elections, but it’s only the initial step in a longer journey
Shennell McCloud

Despite all the confusion surrounding the 2020 election, a couple things are clear: Joe Biden will be our next president, and a record number of Americans cast their votes on both sides. At the end, when the dust settled, high voter enthusiasm and changes to our voting process didn’t lead to catastrophe: They led to the highest voter turnout in a generation.

Here in New Jersey, final numbers are still being tallied. Still, turnout has shattered previous records — with more than 4 million votes cast, including more than 3.6 million New Jerseyans who voted early. This is largely due to changes in the voting process that were ostensibly about keeping people safe during the pandemic but led to a more equitable and inclusive election.

We should celebrate the important changes that made this possible: online voter registration, new legislation to require that voters have a chance to cure mistakes with their mail-in ballots and by executive order, mailing ballots to all active registered voters.

Only the first step

Gov. Phil Murphy and the New Jersey Legislature shouldn’t waste time making all of these changes permanent. They should take it a step further by implementing additional measures proven to increase voter turnout.

Here’s what the State of New Jersey should require — and provide funding for — going forward:

  1. Increase locations and times for in-person early voting. Mail-in ballots are a great way to increase turnout, but some prefer to vote in person at a polling place. Additionally, in-person early voting provides a backstop for any postal service errors when it comes to ballots. Other states, like Texas, Florida and Georgia, saw record-high turnout at early-voting locations. New Jersey should provide voters with this option as well. These early-voting dates must include weekends to be successful.
  2. Mail every voter a ballot in every election. The biggest change was the decision to mail every active registered voter a ballot and the option to return the ballot by mail, in a secure drop box or in person to a county clerk’s office or a polling place on Election Day. The impact of this change was profound in a presidential election with sky-high voter interest. But the greatest change in turnout when voters are mailed a ballot will likely come in lower in-person turnouts for state and local races. People are far less willing to take time away from work and other responsibilities to vote for a school board member than they are when they’re voting for president. Mailing ballots to every voter could dramatically increase participation in critical local elections.
  3. Implement same-day voter registration. New Jersey recently implemented online voter registration, but it does not have same-day registration (which allows voters to register and vote on the same day). Twenty-one states plus the District of Columbia have implemented same-day registration, and it has been proven to significantly increase voter turnout. There’s also no evidence that it leads to fraud: In all states that use same-day registration, voters must provide proof of identity and residency.
  4. Require that employers give paid time off to vote. Thirty states currently allow residents to take time off on Election Day to vote, but in many cases, the amount of time is just a couple of hours, and the time off is unpaid. New Jersey should be at the vanguard of giving people time off to vote, not lagging.
  5. Do more to support poll workers. Our poll workers have always performed a vital civic duty, but this year, during a pandemic, they are truly national heroes. We can and should do several things to support them (and help recruit younger poll workers so that seniors don’t have to risk their lives to count our votes during the pandemic). Paying poll workers more for their time, requiring employers to offer paid time off for employees to serve as poll workers and offering free childcare to parents who want to work at the polls are just a few ways we could better support poll workers.

New Jersey can’t afford to miss this moment. Our state leaders stepped up and made voting more inclusive during the pandemic, but we can’t backtrack now. Let’s take the next steps to end the nation’s inequitable voting systems.