Democratic leaders propose modernizing NJ voting laws with ‘Democracy Act’

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TRENTON — Democratic lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate want to modernize the state’s voting practices, and on Monday announced a set of sweeping overhauls to “outdated” voter rights laws that include plans to allow early voting, online and automatic voter registration and same-day registration.

At a press conference in the statehouse this afternoon, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37), Assembly Speaker Vinnie Prieto (D-32) and Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-6) joined a group of other lawmakers to introduce the “Democracy Act”, a multi-facted bill aimed at making it easier for residents to register to vote and vote in state elections. Among its components are a series of provisions meant to bring up-to-date the state’s voting laws and technologies amid a shifting population that experts say is expected to change dramatically in the next several years.

“The Democracy Act will modernize and improve state election laws to make voting easier and more accessible for the people of New Jersey,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Salem/Cumberland/Gloucester). “Elections are the foundation of democracy and anything we can do to increase voter participation will make government more effective and more responsive to the needs of everyone.  Elections have consequences so we want every eligible voter to have a fair opportunity to participate in the electoral process.”

Lawmakers present noted that New Jersey ranks 39th in the country in terms of registered voters at 64 percent, with an average voter turnout of  54.5 percent. Several different dynamics are expected to change those numbers in the coming years, they added, chief among them being a set of shifting demographics that are expected to result in ethnic and cultural minorities moving into a majority population in the state.

“New Jersey’s election laws date back to the early 1900s, which has led to confusion, litigation, wasteful special elections and a process that quite simply has not kept up with modern technology,” said Prieto. “Superstorm Sandy demonstrated how ill-prepared our election system is for emergencies and how ill-equipped we are for any modern voting. We must do better if we’re going to truly protect voting rights for New Jerseyans from every community across our state.”

The bill hones in on an issue that has shared the national spotlight in recent years, but particularly now, as both Democrats and Republicans gear up for next year’s presidential primaries. Hillary Clinton — a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination — brought the issue up at a recent campaign event, using it to criticize her likely Republican opponents, who she argued have supported strict voter identification and opposing changes to early voting and other election laws. One of those opponents named was Gov. Chris Christie, who is expected to announce a campaign in the coming weeks.

Christie responded to Clinton’s critique earlier this month on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” saying she “doesn’t know what she’s talking about — folks in New Jersey have plenty of an opportunity to vote.”

Supporters of today’s bill begged to differ.

“Our Governor may want to stick their heads in the sand, but the simple truth is that New Jersey’s record of protecting voter rights is mediocre at best,” said Richard Smith, President of the New Jersey State Conference of NAACP, which is supporting the initiative along with organizations like New Jersey Working Families Alliance, ACLU, Latino Action Network and the League of Women Voters. “Legislative leaders in the Assembly and Senate should be commended for advancing bold proposals that could be a game changer for New Jersey and make us a leader in the fight to ensure everyone has equal access to the voting booth.”

“The right to vote is the great equalizer, but that equality only becomes real when we all have equal access to the ballot box,” added Analilia Mejia, executive director of NJWF. “We commend leaders in the Legislature for hearing our call and advancing policies that will help ensure New Jersey’s democracy is by and for the people, and we will work together with legislators to mobilize grassroots support for these common sense proposals and ensure that they become the law of the land.”

The bill also propses:

  • Universal voter registration – Modeled after a successful Oregon law, anyone who gets a driver’s license or state ID card with the DMV would automatically be registered to vote unless they affirmatively opt-out.
  • Same-Day voter registration – Any voter in New Jersey would be able to register and vote at the same time through provisional ballot, in general elections only.
  • Eliminate special elections to fill vacancies – New Jersey taxpayers would not be subject to expensive special elections on irregular days to fill vacancies for office such as the $24 million U.S. Senate election on a Wednesday in October 2013. Senate seats that become vacant more than 70 days before a general election would be filled at that election. All others would be filled at the next year’s general election. And while the governor would retain the right to pick an interim senator in the event of a vacancy, the choice would have to be from the same political party as the senator who had held the seat.
  • Expand access for military and overseas voters – Members of the military and those overseas would be able to take advantage of technology such as the Internet, fax machines, or other means to make voting convenient and secure.
  • Allow for online voter registration – Require the Secretary of State to establish a secure Internet website to allow eligible voters to register to vote using an online voter registration form.
  • Expand “vote-by mail” – Voters would be able to choose to vote by mail.. Voters who have applied for a ballot but not yet returned it would be able to vote at the polls without excuse on Election Day. And all vote-by-mail would be done at no cost to the individual voter.
  • Prohibit harassment at the polls – An existing consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice prohibiting harassment of voters at the polls ends in 2017. The decree would be put into law.
  • Ensure access for people with disabilities – All places for voting, early voting, in-person registration, mail-in registration and online registration would be accessible to those with disabilities.
  • Pre-registration of Young Voters – Allow a person who is 17 years of age to register to vote, and may vote at the next election occurring on or after the person’s 18th birthday.
  • Ensure access for non-English speakers – In a state with as much diversity as New Jersey, as many eligible New Jerseyans as possible would be able to vote and register to vote in a language they understand.
  • Strengthen voter fraud laws – It would change New Jersey law to allow for voter fraud challenges when reasonable evidence exists that illegal votes have been received, or legal votes rejected at the polls sufficient to change the result.

Sweeney and Prieto said they are aiming to get the bill to Gov. Chris Christie’s desk within the month — though when asked how they would proceed given the likelyhood the Republican vetoes the measure, they said they’d have to weigh their options.

Democratic leaders propose modernizing NJ voting laws with ‘Democracy Act’