Originally published in The Bergen Record.
Voters head to the polls today, one year after many citizens struggled to cast a ballot in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The lesson from Sandy is clear: New Jersey’s election system must be more flexible for voters. Confining voting to a single day is simply not reflective of how most people live. Creating an early voting program would help fix the problem.
New Jersey is one of only 18 states nationwide that does not offer every eligible citizen a chance to vote in person before Election Day. The state does offer no-excuse absentee voting, but this is not a substitute for in-person voting. During the hurricane, with voters displaced from their homes and mail service suspended, many people were just unable to participate.
Early in-person voting could have helped. Lawmakers passed an early voting bill earlier this year. But Governor Christie vetoed it, claiming the proposal was “hasty, counterproductive and less reliable” than what is already in place. This is just not true, and here’s why.
In a report released Nov. 1, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law interviewed election officials across the country to learn about early voting practices and what works. Officials agreed: Early in-person voting “eliminated” or “alleviated” the administrative burdens on Election Day, and caused “less voter frustration.” The evening Election Day rush “no longer exists” because of early voting, reported Michael Dickerson, director of elections for Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.
Early voting can lead to shorter lines, improve poll worker performance, prevent errors and increase access, administrators noted. Early voting “gives voters more opportunities to exercise their right to vote. There is more convenience, and more flexibility, which is a good thing,” said Michelle Parker, assistant director of elections for Travis County, Texas. Staff and volunteers come to “feel more comfortable in terms of the ballot and experience with voters,” she added.
Based on this research, and the experience of states with high early voting rates, the Brennan Center provides practical recommendations to make elections more convenient for both voters and officials.
States should start by beginning early voting a full two weeks before Election Day, including weekend voting. They should also set minimum daily hours for early voting and provide extended hours outside a standard business day. Both private and public facilities should be available for early voting, and those sites must be distributed fairly and equitably. Election officials should update poll books daily. And they must educate the electorate about early voting.
Until recently, early voting was not a partisan issue. Some form of it has been implemented and used in 32 states, both red and blue, and it has enjoyed support across the board. In 2013, New Jersey and 19 other states considered proposals to start or expand it. But several others moved to curb early voting this year.
In North Carolina, a recent package of restrictions gutted the state’s highly successful early voting system. That law is currently being challenged in court. Florida cut back early voting before the 2012 election. It was such a disaster that the legislature voted nearly unanimously to restore most of it this year.
These measures are part of a broader assault on voting rights that we’ve seen since the beginning of 2011, as politicians began passing laws making it harder for certain people to vote.
To be sure, adding early voting could increase the budget for running elections. But even those officials who report increased outlays at the front-end back these programs. Maggie Toulouse Oliver of Bernalillo County, New Mexico, for example, said she supports keeping “early voting days open as long as is practicable” to maximize the benefits to voters, including increased participation, and reduction of Election Day “bottlenecks.” Election Day problems are not cost-free. The more done to prevent them, the better the prospects of long-term cost savings.
‘We have to fix that’
One year ago, on election night, President Obama noted the lines of voters waiting hours to cast ballots, even after the race had already been called. “We have to fix that,” he proclaimed.
New Jersey has a chance to fix that.
Early in-person voting adds important flexibility and convenience to modernize the voting process, while keeping elections safe and secure. It reduces the administrative burdens of the Election Day rush. And it would help bring our outdated system into the 21st century.
We cannot afford to repeat the election problems of 2012. Not today or next year or beyond. It is long past time to update our voting system. Early voting is a proven way to do that.