Civil Rights Groups Call for Voting Reforms to Boost Democratic Participation in New Jersey

April 20, 2017

Changes Would Make it Easier to Register, Provide Opportunities for Early Voting, and Expand Access for Formerly Incarcerated Individuals

After one of the most divisive and racially-charged presidential elections in recent history, New Jersey lawmakers have an opportunity to promote an inclusive democratic process that maximizes participation from all of its residents, says a new report released by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

An Agenda for a Renewed Democracy in New Jersey” recommends three actions the New Jersey Legislature can take to safeguard the voting rights of its residents, in particular Black voters: implement automatic voter registration, restore voting rights to residents with past criminal convictions who are living in the community, and set minimum early voting requirements.

“People across the country are understandably concerned about access to voting given recent state-level efforts aimed at keeping people from the polls, especially on the heels of the rhetoric this past election,” said Myrna PĂ©rez, Director of the Voting Rights and Elections Project at the Brennan Center for Justice. “New Jersey legislators have an opportunity to reassure their constituents that pro-voter, pro-democracy change is possible, and reaffirm that America is a county which continues to expand access to this most fundamental right, not impede it.”

New Jersey disenfranchises more formerly-incarcerated people living and working in its communities than any other state in the Northeast. More than 70,000 people are unable to vote because of a past criminal conviction. That’s more than the number of disfranchised community members living in New York, Connecticut, and Delaware combined.

According to the report, a disproportionate number of these disenfranchised community members — nearly half — are Black. As such, the voting ban disproportionately disenfranchises Black residents.

People who are able to exercise their right to vote in New Jersey don’t do so, leading to an avoidable problem of low voter participation, according to the report. In 2016, Black voters, younger voters, and lower-income voters all saw a drop in their share of the electorate. In the 2014 election, New Jersey experienced low participation levels, ranking among the 10 worst-performing states for voter participation that year.

“We must ensure that democracy in New Jersey is made real and accessible to its residents, and that it reflects our collective and robust participation,” said Ryan P. Haygood, President and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “Our recommendations today provide an opportunity for New Jersey to serve as national bright light for democratic inclusion.”    

Under automatic voter registration, which is already law in six states, eligible residents who come in contact with a participating government agency, like the Motor Vehicle Commission, for instance, are automatically registered to vote unless they decline. It moves voter registration from an “opt in” system to an “opt out” one. The legislature has twice passed bills, including with some bipartisan support, to automatically register residents at Motor Vehicle Commission offices. Gov. Chris Christie twice vetoed the measure.

The report also suggests lawmakers make voting accessible by setting minimum standards for early voting in New Jersey. It recommends that in-person polling sites should be open at least a full two weeks before Election Day, with multiple locations per county, and that all counties should be required to offer some early voting hours on evenings and weekends, including the weekend immediately before Election Day. Data from multiple states confirms that Black voters are more likely to take advantage of the flexibility early voting provides.

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