TRENTON - New Jersey Democrats are pushing a set of measures to increase voter registration and expand access to the polls, citing new lows in turnout in recent elections.
The proposed overhaul, announced Monday by Democratic leaders in the Senate and Assembly, would allow for early in-person voting for two weeks, through the Sunday before the Tuesday election - similar to a measure Gov. Christie previously vetoed.
To increase the ranks of registered voters, lawmakers propose measures that include same-day and online registration, and automatic registration for people receiving driver's licenses or state identification cards from the Motor Vehicle Commission unless they opt out.
"I'm curious to see who's going to oppose this," Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said at a Statehouse news conference, where he was joined by Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) and others. "It's about giving everybody a shot."
New Jersey, which has a vote-by-mail program, is one of 36 states that allow some form of preelection voting, though not all of those states offer early in-person voting, said Wendy Underhill, program manager for elections at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Some of the proposed changes have become national trends, Underhill said. Online registration is in operation or has been approved by 27 states and the District of Columbia, she said, and "lots of states" have proposed automatic registration for drivers getting licenses since Oregon became the first to enact the policy this year.
Democrats said the proposals would be introduced as legislation Monday, as the deadline approaches to pass a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Lawmakers said the timing was not intended to rush through the legislation - which advocates said had been in the works for a year - or in response to Christie, who recently said that New Jerseyans had "plenty of an opportunity to vote."
"I don't want to expand it and increase the opportunities for fraud," Christie said in an interview that aired this month on CBS News' Face the Nation.
Christie, who is expected to decide this month on a 2016 presidential bid, was responding to accusations by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton that he and other Republicans had tried to restrict voter participation.
In 2013, Christie vetoed a bill that would have required designated polling places in each county to open for a two-week period before election day - which he said would make elections less reliable. He also criticized the cost, projected to be $23 million in the first year and $2 million each year after that.
Under the state's vote-by-mail program, voters must apply to their county clerk at least a week before the election, or in person at least three days before the election.
If Christie vetoes the new legislation, Democrats indicated they would consider asking voters for approval. "We have to talk about whether we take it to the voters," Sweeney said.
Brian Murray, a spokesman for Christie, declined to comment Monday on the proposals.
In arguing for the changes, Democrats pointed to reports of record-low turnout at the polls. An Associated Press analysis found 5.1 percent of eligible voters participated in the June 2 primary, the lowest turnout in a New Jersey primary in 90 years. Only five of the 40 legislative districts included contested primaries.
Christie's November 2013 win over Democrat Barbara Buono drew the lowest-ever turnout for a gubernatorial election, the Newark Star-Ledger reported: 39.6 percent.
Turnout is affected by factors ranging from weather to who is on the ballot, making it "really tricky to tie election administration choices directly to turnout," Underhill said.
Democrats also cited 39th-place rankings for New Jersey in percentage of eligible voters registered (64.3 percent) and voter turnout (54.5 percent). The rankings are by NJ DataBank, a project of the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers-Newark, which cited 2012 U.S. census data. It also said many states with high registration had smaller populations, skewing the rankings.
Other groups appear to have calculated turnout differently. A Pew Charitable Trusts Elections Performance Index said New Jersey's turnout rate in 2012 was 62.62 percent, above a national average of 60.43 percent. The U.S. Elections Project, a website run by a University of Florida professor, said New Jersey's turnout rate that year was 62.3 percent, above a national rate of 58.6 percent.
Lawmakers could not give a cost estimate Monday for the proposed voting changes.
"Honestly, it's nominal," Sweeney said.
The proposals also include eliminating special elections for vacancies, a process Democrats criticized Monday as expensive. In 2013, Christie held a special election at an estimated cost of $24 million to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Democrat Frank R. Lautenberg. Democrats accused Christie of opting for the special election to decrease Democratic turnout for the November general election, when he was on the ballot. Christie said it allowed voters to pick a new senator more quickly.
The October 2013 election - won by Democrat Cory Booker - followed Christie's appointment of Republican Jeffrey S. Chiesa as an interim senator.
That scenario would not be allowed under the proposals announced Monday, which would require a governor to select an interim senator from the same party as the senator who had held the seat.