Gov. Chris Christie faces a choice. He can either sign or veto the Democracy Act, a breakthrough bill that would put New Jersey at the forefront of voting modernization. Last year, the state’s record-low voter turnout rate of 30.4 percent was among the worst in the country. The Democracy Act offers a package of reforms that can help reverse that trend, but reports indicate Christie may veto the bill. He should sign it — and go even further to make New Jersey a national leader on voting rights.
The Democracy Act includes policies that would boost registration rates, clean up the rolls, save money, and make voting more convenient. It would allow voters to register or update their information online and provide two weeks of early in person voting. But its top proposal is automatic registration. New Jersey would be the second state in the country to institute this landmark change, which would remove a significant barrier to participation by putting the onus on the government to sign up eligible voters and modernize the current error-ridden, paper-based registration system.
There has been significant national momentum around automatic registration in recent months. Oregon became the first state to pass automatic registration in March. State DMV offices will now use information they already collect to electronically register all eligible citizens to vote, allowing those who wish to remain unregistered to do so. Since Oregon passed its law, legislators in 17 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Congress have introduced automatic registration bills. In June, Hillary Clinton joined these voices, publicly calling for universal, automatic registration for all citizens when they turn 18. And last week Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced federal legislation to automatically register eligible voters when they interact with certain government agencies. Nationwide, automatic registration holds the potential to add up to 50 million Americans to the voting ranks, moving the country closer to a democracy in which all citizens have a voice.
The Democracy Act would make New Jersey a leader on voter registration, but the state can and should go even further to build an inclusive democracy. Right now, New Jersey denies the right to vote to people with past criminal convictions until they have completed all terms of their sentence, including probation and parole. Because of this policy, there are approximately 130,000 people who are living, working, and raising families in New Jersey communities, but cannot vote.
In the past 20 years, more than 20 states have made the ballot box more accessible to these returning citizens. Today, leaders from across the ideological spectrum — like Hillary Clinton and Rand Paul — have come out in support of continued reform. Law enforcement professionals in particular have been outspoken proponents of voting rights restoration, highlighting its benefits to public safety through decreased recidivism rates. Recently, President Obama also spoke in support, emphasizing the importance of restoring voting rights as a crucial aspect of re-entry.
New Jersey needs the Democracy Act to help boost dismal voter participation rates and enable many eligible citizens to join the rolls for the first time. But this alone is not enough. If New Jersey is serious about increasing participation, it should join the growing number of states to restore voting rights to people with past criminal convictions.