I was shocked to be turned away at the polls. 3 things N.J. can do to fix early voting.

Posted Nov 5, 2018

By Alexis Karteron


I was especially excited about voting this year because my county made early voting an option on a weekend.

As a busy working parent, a leisurely trip to a county building about 20 minutes from my home on a weekend morning sounded like a much better idea than heading to my polling place at 6 a.m. -- the only time on Election Day I could be sure the polls would be open and I wouldn't have competing work and family obligations.

So I was shocked and dismayed when I arrived at Essex County's early voting location on Saturday-- 30 minutes before it was supposed to close -- only to be informed by sheriff's deputies that I and at least a dozen others would not be allowed inside to vote because the clerk's office couldn't handle the volume of people. (Turning away people who get in line to vote while the polls are open on Election Day is unquestionably illegal.)

It seems very likely that some will have to sit out this election because they were turned away on Saturday.

New Jersey needs to update its election system to make voting as easy as possible for all citizens. My experience on Saturday, when I was turned away from an early voting location, illustrates just one reason why.

Given record low turnout in this state just last year, barriers to voting are the last thing we need. Instead, New Jersey should expand opportunities to vote. My experience and research as a civil rights lawyer and law professor suggest we should start by taking the three following steps.

1) New Jersey should have real early voting.

Early voting in New Jersey is an awkward and time-consuming substitute for the Election Day experience. Instead of voting by machine at your regular polling place, voting in person before Election Day requires the submission of an application for a mail-in ballot at a clerk's office.

Some county clerks make this process available at satellite locations, but not all. Hours are also extremely limited, with few opportunities to vote on weekends in some counties and none at all in others. Numerous states do early voting much better. They don't require applications and, for two weeks before Election Day, voters can show up at numerous locations during extended hours, including on weekends.

When implemented well, early voting is enormously popular. It not only increases the likelihood that people vote, but reduces lines -- and stress -- on Election Day for voters and poll workers alike. It also gives voters a chance to identify any problems with their registration records before Election Day and, if necessary, correct errors.

2) We should make registering to vote as easy as possible.

The Legislature took an important step toward that goal this year by adopting automatic voter registration, which will streamline voter registration at motor vehicle commissions and social service agencies.

The next step is to adopt Same Day Registration, which would eliminate the requirement that a citizen register at least three weeks in advance of an election. Instead, one can register for the first time or update their registration record on Election Day (or at an early voting location).

Interest in elections peaks very shortly before Election Day. Our voter registration system should recognize this reality and facilitate participation by those who are especially likely to have outdated registration records, including frequent movers, young people, and those with low incomes.

3) We should expand the pool of people who can vote.

New Jersey bars people in prison, on probation, and on parole from voting. As a result, more than 70,000 people, who are disproportionately black and Latino, are living freely in our communities and not allowed to vote. These restrictions do nothing to protect the integrity of our voting system.

Even worse, they undermine the successful reentry into the community for citizens who have served their time. New Jersey's ban on voting for people on parole and probation makes it an outlier in the Northeast. New York has allowed people on probation to vote for decades, and just this year extended the franchise to parolees. New Jersey should follow suit.

It will be tricky, but I will be able to make the time to vote on Tuesday. Unfortunately, not everyone who wants to vote will be able to say the same. New Jersey should do what it can to encourage participation and give everyone a voice in our democracy.

Alexis Karteron is an assistant professor of law and director of the Constitutional Rights Clinic at Rutgers Law School.

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