Op-ed: Voting Reform Long Overdue in NJ

Check out the latest column from NJ Working Families director Analilia Mejia in the June 24th edition of the Bergen Record:

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Voter reform long overdue in New Jersey

JUNE 24, 2015
BY ANALILIA MEJIA
THE RECORD

New Jersey lags behind most of the nation when it comes to voter engagement.

RECENTLY, New Jersey’s voting rights record came into national focus, thanks to a fierce debate between Governor Christie and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Clinton charged Christie with failing to do more to expand access to the polls, and Christie replied that the former senator and secretary of state”doesn’t know what she was talking about.”

It was a troubling response, particularly since Christie made it just days after one of New Jersey’s lowest turnout primary elections in nearly a century. Only 5.1 percent of New Jersey’s eligible voters cast ballots on June 2 – not exactly a record for any governor to hang his or her hat on.

New Jersey’s poor track record on voter participation isn’t restricted to one election. We lag behind most of the nation when it comes to voter engagement. New Jersey ranks 39th in the nation in both percentage of eligible voters registered and percent of voters who actually vote. By comparison, Mississippi leads our nation with a voter registration rate of 82.8 percent.

The simple fact is that New Jersey’s election system is outdated and cumbersome. A non-partisan 2014 survey of election systems by Pew Charitable Trusts ranked New Jersey 37th in how it runs elections.

Broad participation

Sticking our head in the sand and pretending there isn’t a problem is simply not the answer. Any democracy that is truly by the people and for the people requires broad participation of the electorate. The voting booth may give each of us an equal say, but that only matters if we all have equal access to it.

Many of the barriers to voting are the result of deliberate policy choices made by past generations to limit accessibility, as well as a simple failure on our part to employ modern technology, information-sharing and other systems that will make voting easier for people working full time to put food on their family’s table.

New Jersey should follow the example of other states in modernizing its voting procedures to make them more convenient and accessible for everyone, and it should blaze new trails in expanding the ability of regular New Jerseyans to participate in our democracy.

Fortunately, state legislative leaders this week advanced a set of reforms that could get us there. The New Jersey Democracy Act would allow for automatic voter registration when eligible residents get a driver’s license or state identification card, and would eliminate the yearly application for vote-by-mail and allow residents to automatically renew their choice. The act would also ensure language is no barrier to participating in our democracy by using census-based language inclusion in New Jersey’s ballot materials.

Self-determination

In his most famous speech, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that so long as individuals lack the right to vote, they lack self-determination within their own nation. The Democracy Act alone won’t overcome decades of disenfranchisement, but it would make it possible for many more New Jerseyans to have a say in their own democracy.

It’s too critical an issue to ignore. New Jersey legislators should rally around the Democracy Act and put it on the governor’s desk without delay.

Analilia Mejia is executive director of New Jersey Working Families.