New Jersey's transition from mechanical to electronic voting machines was fraught with mistakes and controversy. But the state is making progress toward more accessible, reliable, and sensible elections by embracing an old technology: the mail.
The state has offered so-called excuse-free absentee voting since 2005, giving all voters the option of casting ballots by mail. But a bill passed by the Legislature last month, which Gov. Corzine is expected to sign, promises to expand and simplify the option in time for this fall's gubernatorial election. It should make voting easier in New Jersey and perhaps encourage Pennsylvania lawmakers to follow suit.
The legislation - sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), Assemblyman Jack Conners (D., Burlington), and others - does away with the absentee terminology in the current statutes and replaces it with simply mail-in voting, reflecting the universal availability of the option.
It also allows voters to request mail-in ballots for an entire year or in perpetuity, eliminating the need to reapply for each of the state's numerous elections. And it directs state officials to publicize the postal option.
With this legislation, New Jersey is leading the region in catching up with the Western states that conduct much or most of their voting by mail. As of last year's presidential election, 34 states offered some form of early voting to the entire electorate, either by mail or by keeping polls open for more than a day.
Pennsylvania offers traditional absentee ballots, but it is in the shrinking minority of states that do not offer either kind of early voting to anyone who prefers it.
Early voting has proven popular where it's available, dramatically increasing convenience, which tends to boost participation. It also eases the burden on the system on Election Day, which can lead to errors and disenfranchisement.
The New Jersey legislation was passed over the objections of Republicans in both houses, some of whom said it would expand opportunities for fraud. It's true that voting by mail is less secure in some ways, and the state has seen isolated instances of absentee-ballot fraud.
That's good reason for vigilance, but not for dismissing a voting method that's already well-established in New Jersey and nationwide. The recently passed legislation includes safeguards against fraud, such as provisions for county election officials to verify voters' identities and stop mailing ballots to inactive voters.
Voting by mail also avoids many of the problems endemic to traditional Election Day voting. In New Jersey, those have included machinery glitches, verification problems, uneven poll worker training, and several cases of federal intervention to ensure that minorities weren't being discouraged from voting.
Participation should be the first order of the voting system, and this bill encourages more of it - using nothing more novel than paper ballots and the U.S. Postal Service.