Voting is, for the most part, easy in New Jersey. Over the past few years, the state has permanently expanded access to voting in several key areas. But advocates are pushing for a more complete transition to universal vote-by-mail access, among other changes they see as key to equity.
During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy had absentee ballots mailed directly to every registered voter. It was an emergency reform widely applauded for boosting voter turnout.
Since then, the state has established a system of early voting and other reforms, but lawmakers have balked at the idea of continuing to mail out ballots, unrequested, to every voter.
And unlike most states in which Democrats control both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office, New Jersey does not allow voter registration on Election Day.
Larry Hamm, founder of the People’s Organization for Progress and a former U.S. Senate candidate, notes that same-day voter registration is something many grassroots organizations have been demanding since as far back as the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign of 1984. In March, more than 90 groups signed a letter urging the New Jersey legislature to support it.
Vote by mail
New Jersey offers “no-excuse” absentee voting, which means that any voter can request and cast an absentee/mail ballot, without having to qualify under or provide a particular reason. New Jersey is among five states and Washington, D.C., that allow any voter to add their name to a permanent absentee ballot list and automatically receive a ballot by mail for each election.
When New Jersey stopped mailing ballots to every registered voter, turnout dropped significantly in 2021 elections for the state legislature and governor, but was comparable to previous state elections. Turnout among voters under 29 fell to just 20%.
Early in-person voting was adopted in New Jersey in 2021. Voters can cast ballots at local early voting sites starting Oct. 29.
Unlike some states where access varies wildly between communities due to local discretion, New Jersey’s state legislature has specified that early voting centers be open from “at least” 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.
Expanding voting hours so far beyond the traditional single Election Day hours on a Tuesday helps level the playing field for voters who work jobs that don’t have flexible time off, or who have limited access to transportation.
The legislation also creates the “voting center” model for early polling places, in which each county will be reimbursed by the state to maintain a certain number of locations based on population and voters can cast a ballot at any one of those locations. State law doesn’t prohibit communities from opening more voting centers than the minimum required at local expense.
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This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
And while a number of Republican-controlled states have been criticized for “criminalizing” the voting process — with Florida going as far as creating an “election police” force — New Jersey has moved in the other direction.
A new state law prohibits local election officials from bringing police officers into polling places, and bans law enforcement officers from wearing uniforms and carrying weapons within 100 feet of a polling place unless they’re answering a direct call for assistance.
The Democracy & Justice program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, in arguing that law enforcement officers should be kept away from voting sites, said that “in election after election, people are intimidated by police at the polls, especially Black and Brown voters. This is the last thing we want to do given current threats to our democracy.”
Voting list purges
New Jersey is addressing the fact that it needs to update its roster of registered voters. When elections took place during the height of COVID-19, mail-in ballots were automatically sent to every active registered voter in the state’s 21 counties. But there were complaints that some mail-in ballots were sent to people who had already moved, to a person whose name had officially been changed, and even to deceased people. It’s one reason state officials hesitated to extend the 2020 policy of mailing ballots to every registered voter.
New Jersey is officially updating its rolls but claims to not be “purging” voting lists.
Advocates fear election officials will go too far, leading to disenfranchisement.
“There are some technical reasons that we need to do … roll purging –– people move, change addresses, and so on and so forth –– that’s true,” said POP’s Larry Hamm. “But isn’t there another way to do this so that we’re not constantly suppressing the whole vote process?
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