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New Jersey wants to expand voting access and give new voice to marginalized populations

New Jersey lawmakers, and Gov. Murphy, want to expand the options for registering to vote and casting a ballot. That could improve turnout and give new voice to traditionally marginalized groups, experts and advocates said.

Voters enter the Impacting Your World Christian Center in Cherry Hill on Nov. 8, 2016
Voters enter the Impacting Your World Christian Center in Cherry Hill on Nov. 8, 2016Read moreDavid Swanson

While some states have moved to restrict voting access in recent years, others have adopted a variety of changes designed to make registration and voting easier.

New Jersey, which has been watching from the sidelines, is poised to jump to the head of the line.

After being rebuffed by former Gov. Chris Christie, lawmakers are again attempting to pass a sweeping set of changes to make it easier to vote, including:

  1. Automatic voter registration for eligible citizens who apply for or update a driver's license

  2. Early voting in person for two weeks before Election Day

  3. Online voter registration

  4. Preregistration of 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the election

Other provisions would expand vote-by-mail options, military and overseas voting, and language options for election materials.

"It's really about modernizing our outdated voting laws, granting access to people, encouraging access," said State Assemblyman Louis D. Greenwald, the Democratic majority leader who cosponsored the "Democracy Act" containing the reform efforts. "We just had a gubernatorial election where the voter turnout was record low for us. That's not what we should be striving for. We should be striving for full participation and encouraging people to get involved to go out and vote."

Many people who are eligible to vote don't register, and many of those who register don't actually vote, particularly in non-presidential elections. Experts attribute that to a variety of factors, including registration deadlines that pass before people think about voting, the inconvenience of dealing with paper forms, and the difficulties some face getting to the polls on Election Day.

By making it easier to register to vote, and providing more options to actually cast a ballot, lawmakers and advocates hope to see turnout increase.

And because the ability to vote is distributed unevenly across the eligible population, expanded access could mean increased participation from people of color, the poor, the disabled, the elderly, and other historically marginalized groups.

The result could be a government that better represents all people.

"We want to make sure everybody has a voice in our democracy," said Sean Morales-Doyle, a voting-rights lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University and a supporter of the measures New Jersey is considering. "And the more we can increase access to the polls, the more likely we're going to be increasing access for populations that have been historically pushed to the margins."

The Democracy Act is not the only proposal to expand voter access, but it is the widest-ranging and is backed by several powerful lawmakers, including Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester), Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D., Middlesex), and former Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson).

Greenwald said that Gov. Murphy, who spoke on the campaign trail about voting rights, is "definitely receptive" to the bill and that the governor has spoken with lawmakers about it. A spokesman for Murphy declined to comment on specific legislation as a matter of policy.

"Governor Murphy believes that we are a better, stronger, more representative democracy when more people participate, and he is committed to tearing down barriers to voting," Murphy spokesman Dan Bryan said in a statement. "He has long supported policies to that effect, including automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, and early voting."

Several of the measures New Jersey is considering have gained traction in other states, said Wendy Underhill, director for elections at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Online voter registration, for example, went from being available in two states in 2008 to 37 states — plus Washington, D.C. — today, with Oklahoma passing the legislation but not yet implementing it.

"Clearly, that's a trend that's sweeping the nation," Underhill said.

Automatic voter registration also appears to be growing in popularity, Underhill said, as is same-day registration allowing people to register on Election Day and then vote.

But some states have moved to restrict voting access, often invoking security concerns, said Lorraine Minnite, a political science professor at Rutgers-Camden. In vetoing some of these measures in the past, Christie said they would open the door to voter fraud.

"This bill should be called 'the Voter Fraud Enhancement and Permission Act,' " he said of legislation that would have implemented automatic registration. In a 2015 interview with CBS News' Face the Nation, Christie said that citizens had "plenty of an opportunity to vote" and that "I don't want to expand it and increase the opportunities for fraud."

Experts say actual voting fraud, in which someone intentionally votes illegally, such as voting multiple times or voting under someone else's name, is rare.

"There's the logic to it, the fact that it doesn't make sense as a crime," Minnite said, citing the practical obstacles to voting fraudulently and the small chance that doing so would swing an election. "Also the empirical evidence: I've been studying the issue for 15 years, and no evidence exists that supports a claim that voter fraud is a systematic problem."

Separately, there are fears of election interference through hacking or manipulation. Would an online voter registration system, for example, be vulnerable to attack?

It's certainly possible, experts said, and cybersecurity is an important consideration during these kinds of electoral reforms, but there are ways for states to protect themselves and learn from one another.

Concerns about security and the very rare instances of voter fraud should also be considered in the context of all the people who want to vote but face obstacles to doing so, said Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida.

"You're giving people more convenience to vote, and on balance more people are voting who would not have otherwise voted," he said.

About two-thirds of eligible citizens voted in the 2016 general election, according to data collected by the U.S. Elections Project, which McDonald runs. Registration tends to be the primary obstacle to voting, McDonald said, and the changes proposed by New Jersey lawmakers are generally thought to increase turnout. Some might not increase turnout but may make voting more convenient, he said, such as early voting, which some studies suggest does not increase turnout itself but shifts when people vote, making it easier for them.

There are also social-justice considerations in expanding voting access.

"It's about making sure everybody is on the same playing field when we talk about accessing the ballot," said Amol Sinha, the head of the ACLU New Jersey. "There are certain populations that have been historically disenfranchised in New Jersey and around the country, and we have to make sure we do whatever we can to expand the right to vote."

That has effects on public policy.

McDonald said elected officials tend to respond to the people who elected them, not the general public, and that policy tends to reflect an upper-class bias: "The sorts of people who tend to vote are people with higher education, wealthier people, they tend to be white, as well, and older."

Sinha said he hopes the proposed changes are enacted, giving new voice to politically and socially marginalized groups. Jesse Burns, the head of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, agreed. The nonpartisan group runs a voter assistance hotline year-round, and Burns said she hears similar calls pop up every year in the weeks leading up to Election Day: I need an absentee ballot. I need to register to vote. I need to update my registration.

All of it, she said, with the same underlying question: "I want to vote, but is it too late?"

"Every time I have to tell somebody, 'I'm sorry, it's too late, let's register you now so you won't miss it next time,' it breaks my heart," Burns said. "I'm looking forward to seeing a new landscape in New Jersey where I no longer have to tell people that no, they can't participate."