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As N.J. and Pa. fall behind in voting access, governors call for reform

New Jersey and Pennsylvania have made some changes to their electoral systems, but they’re falling behind, experts say. The governors are calling for change.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, left, and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf have called for changes to their states’ electoral systems. As other states have expanded voting access, N.J. and Pa. have fallen behind, despite some progress.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, left, and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf have called for changes to their states’ electoral systems. As other states have expanded voting access, N.J. and Pa. have fallen behind, despite some progress.Read more--- Steven M. Falk, Associated Press

While the governors of Pennsylvania and New Jersey have made changes to their state’s electoral systems — Gov. Tom Wolf implemented online voter registration in Pennsylvania and Gov. Phil Murphy enacted automatic voter registration in New Jersey — they’ve had to watch as other states continue to push past them on expansion of voting access.

Wolf and Murphy want to catch up.

Drawing on advances in other states, Murphy said in December that in 2019 he would push to allow residents to register to vote online; to register to vote on Election Day; to cast a ballot early, before Election Day; to vote as a 17-year-old in a primary election if they will be 18 by the general election; and to vote if on probation or parole.

Wolf, a Democrat, has made a similar call for changes. Both governors will need the cooperation of legislatures that are sometimes hostile to them, and Republicans say they have opposed expanded voting access for fear of fraud.

Wolf faces a Republican-controlled legislature that often opposes his initiatives. Murphy, also a Democrat, is feuding with the Democratic leadership of the state Legislature in New Jersey, but one of those leaders says they are on the same page when it comes to voting rights.

In Pennsylvania, Wolf spokesperson J.J. Abbott said the administration has discussed the issue with legislators.

“We believe strongly that there is room to find bipartisan consensus in this area,” he said. “For instance, our administration has had constructive conversations about improving Pennsylvania’s antiquated absentee ballot system.”

If enacted, those changes would make it easier for people to register to vote and to cast a ballot, easing obstacles that can contribute to low turnout and unequal representation. They’re no panacea, experts warned — there’s more work to be done to increase faith in the system and turnout in elections — but are important means to make the electoral system accessible to all who are eligible and hope to participate.

“There’s a frighteningly low level of trust and faith in government right now, and so these kinds of reforms are necessary to send a signal that things can change and that the government can be made to work for and be responsive to the people again,” said Wendy R. Weiser, a voting rights expert who leads the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

In some cases, change has come from the voters themselves; voter initiatives passed last November expanded voting rights in several states, including restoring the franchise to 1.4 million people in Florida with felony convictions and allowing Maryland voters to register on Election Day.

That follows a trend that over the last decade has seen other states enact a variety of changes to make voting more convenient. While some states have moved in the other direction, intentionally restricting access, others — including Pennsylvania and New Jersey — have largely stayed put.

Neither state allows in-person early voting (though New Jersey’s no-excuse absentee voting can be used to vote early). Among Pennsylvania’s other issues are tight absentee ballot deadlines that mean a disproportionate number of ballots come in late and are rejected, and overseas voters intentionally blocked from accessing the state’s election websites.

In other words, problems remain. And other states are moving forward while Pennsylvania and New Jersey lag, Weiser said.

“They might not have a strong history of voting discrimination” as some states do, she said, “but they have definitely fallen behind the rest of the nation in terms of voting access by failing to keep up.”

“It is starting to be an embarrassment,” she said of states that have fallen behind, including New York.

A spokesperson for Murphy, Mahen Gunaratna, acknowledged the national context.

“There’s a unique window of opportunity here, given the national conversation around voting rights,” he said. Citing efforts to restrict voting rights in other states, he said: “It’s really on progressive-leaning states to expand the franchise and not just protect voting rights but affirmatively expand them, and it’s something the governor feels strongly about and something he’d like to explore in 2019.”

While Wolf faces a steep climb in the legislature, Murphy may have an easier path forward: Democratic lawmakers in New Jersey have for several years pushed for most of the changes he is calling for.

Voting-access legislation, which included automatic voter registration, early voting, and online voter registration, was backed by powerful lawmakers including Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and passed by the Legislature in 2015 but vetoed by former Gov. Chris Christie, who said it would abet voter fraud.

Following the 2018 election, the Legislature can capitalize on increased public interest in voting rights, said Assembly Majority Leader Louis D. Greenwald, the Camden County Democrat who sponsored the voting-access bill that Christie blocked.

“New Jersey’s is not an issue of suppression as much as it is of trying to modernize the system,” Greenwald said.

Greenwald said he and other Democratic lawmakers generally agree with the changes Murphy wants, though he is less certain about allowing people on parole or probation to vote: “It depends on the severity of the crime."

That may disappoint some advocates, who say disenfranchisement should not be used as a punishment for crime at all.

Amol Sinha, the head of the ACLU of New Jersey, said he hopes the state will allow everyone to vote regardless of criminal history — including those currently incarcerated. Pointing to New Jersey’s disproportionately high rate of black incarceration, he said: “That means we are systemically and deliberately denying black people the right to vote in our state, and that is unconscionable.”

Greenwald said voting access is at the top of the agenda in the new year.

“You will see this,” he said.