Why Now's the Time for N.J. to Adopt Automatic Voter Registration

The policy has been shown to increase both registration rates and turnout without compromising election integrity.

January 17, 2018


Cross-posted in The Star-Ledger.

With Phil Murphy taking the oath of office Tuesday, it's important to remember that he was put in that position by the will of the voters in New Jersey. And this change to a new administration allows the electorate and politicians alike to take stock of where things stand and to outline goals for the coming years.

Murphy's election made it clear that expanding democratic participation is itself one area that's ripe for reform in the Garden State. Only 39 percent of registered voters turned out to cast a ballot in November. Too few of our fellow citizens are exercising one of their most fundamental and powerful rights, and it's time to make some simple fixes that will allow more New Jerseyans to participate in shaping the future of our state.

One way to increase the number of voices in our local democracy is to adopt automatic voter registration. The policy is a common-sense reform that will increase accuracy of the voter rolls and improve voter participation.

Right now, when you visit the Motor Vehicle Commission to update your license or change your address, you have to opt in to have your information automatically used to register to vote. Under automatic voter registration, that process occurs unless someone opts out. Agents would automatically transfer the voter's relevant information to state election officials, and push through information any time details are updated. It simply changes that presumption and makes the current system more efficient.

The policy has been shown to increase both registration rates and turnout without compromising election integrity. Oregon was the first state to implement automatic voter registration, and the rate of new registrations at state motor vehicle agencies has since quadrupled. The overall registration rate has jumped by nearly 10 percent. In the 2016 presidential election, more than 98,000 votes were cast by new voters signed up through Oregon's automatic voter registration.

It's a reform that would also increase the accuracy and security of the voter rolls. Errors often occur when voters move and forget to update their registration information. But election officials need those details to safeguard election integrity. With timely and accurate data from MVC, jurisdictions will be able to reduce those errors.

Automatic voter registration has been approved in nine states and Washington, D.C., and gained broad bipartisan backing in the process. The bill that passed the Illinois Legislature, for example, had unanimous support. It was signed into law by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in August 2017.

The possibility of movement on automatic voter registration is more promising than it's been in a while. Murphy has declared that as governor, he plans to expand access to voting and introduce policies that add more voices to the process. We trust that the incoming governor will fulfill his promise to New Jersey voters.

The fight for a more inclusive and representative democracy began long before Murphy's inauguration, and it will continue long after. But these simple changes, which he can work with the state Legislature to make, will bring New Jersey one step closer to the ideal that President Abraham Lincoln articulated more than 150 years ago: a government of the people, by the people and for the people.