N.J.’s Governor Wants to Give You Fewer Reasons Not to Vote

By Nick Corasaniti


Jan. 9, 2019

Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, is pursuing a package of bills that would significantly expand voting rights in New Jersey.


Ballots disqualified for dubious reasons. Hourslong wait times. Onerous identification requirements. Broken polling stations.

The frustrations millions of people experienced during November’s midterm election have made voting rights a polarizing issue, thrusting it to the top of statehouse agendas across the country. While some states are wrestling with expanding voter access, others are seeking to further restrict access to the ballot under the guise of combating voter fraud, which is extremely rare.

Now, in New Jersey, Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, is pursuing a series of bills that would significantly expand access to the ballot for hundreds of thousands of voters.

“The package of reforms in New Jersey would place the state at the forefront of the country in terms of voter access,” said Wendy R. Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

The bills call for changes across the electoral spectrum: allowing online voter registration and early voting up to 30 days before an election; same-day voter registration; permitting those on parole and probation to vote; and making 17-year-olds who turn 18 by the general election eligible to vote in party primaries.

The package, which would have to be passed by the Democrat-controlled State Legislature, does not include proposals that would result in a first-in-the-nation approach to expanding voting access. But the changes — combined with reforms approved in 2018 that expanded automatic voter registration and made it simpler to vote by mail — would make New Jersey one of the easiest states to cast a vote.

Mr. Murphy’s campaign comes as Democratic lawmakers nationwide pursue voting reform as a way to enfranchise minorities and low-income Americans who have often been the victims of strict voting requirements.

In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, has called for similar reforms as Mr. Murphy and proposed that Election Day be declared a state holiday.

Mr. Cuomo has said that past efforts to change voting laws have been stymied by a divided Legislature. Now, with Democrats in control of the Assembly and the Senate, Mr. Cuomo has said he believes he can pass meaningful electoral reforms.

Other states have adopted far more significant changes to voting rules. In Oregon, Washington and Colorado, all registered voters are automatically sent a mail-in-ballot, while Maine and Vermont allow felons still in jail to vote.

In New Jersey, Mr. Murphy overcame a contentious relationship with two legislative leaders — Stephen M. Sweeney, the Senate president, and Craig Coughlin, the Assembly speaker — to pass last year’s voting bills. One law, which automatically renewed mail ballots for people who had voted by mail in the 2016 election, resulted in more than 400,000 votes being cast by mail during the 2018 midterms, by far the most for any election, including presidential elections, in state history.

The changes in voting laws followed efforts that date to 2015 when Democratic lawmakers passed an act that contained versions of the proposals Mr. Murphy is now promoting, as well as new proposals like language accessibility, which would require ballots to be printed in more languages if populations were represented in significant numbers in election districts. Mr. Murphy’s predecessor, Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, vetoed the bill, which has been reintroduced in the Assembly.

More recently, Democratic lawmakers have found themselves the target of intense criticism from voting rights activists over a controversial effort to change the way New Jersey draws its legislative districts. The proposal called for enshrining a formula into the state Constitution that would have tipped the playing field to favor Democrats.

Mr. Sweeney was a sponsor of the bill. Mr. Murphy, progressive Democratic groups and Republicans all opposed the effort; Mr. Sweeney eventually announced that he would not bring the measure for a final Senate vote.

Mr. Sweeney declined to say whether he would support Mr. Murphy’s electoral package, while Mr. Coughlin said he believed in expansive voting reforms.

“Speaker Coughlin is committed to changing New Jersey’s antiquated voting laws and will work to protect voting rights for New Jerseyans across the state,” said Liza Acevedo, a spokeswoman for Mr. Coughlin.

The redistricting fight, Mr. Murphy said, is part of what is motivating him to push for the new voting reforms.

“This redistricting hubbub,’’ Mr. Murphy said in a recent interview, has further “dusted off my passion for a whole lengthy democracy agenda.”

Still, while the package of proposals is ambitious for New Jersey, parts of the plan play catch-up with other states.

More than a third of states allow 17-year-olds to vote in party primaries. More than a dozen states allow ex-felons to vote immediately after they are released from prison and over two-thirds allow online voter registration.

Many states offer in-person early voting, but the 30-day window proposed in New Jersey would be among the widest in the country. (Georgia is the leader with a 45-day early voting period.) New Jersey would also require polling locations to be open seven days a week.

Whatever support Mr. Murphy has been able to gain has not included Republicans.

“This, in my judgment, is a political maneuver to continue to increase the number of votes in a Democratic state to ensure victory for the party that has the majority of the registration,” said Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, the Republican minority leader. There are 900,000 more registered Democrats in New Jersey than Republicans. “I don’t think there’s any reason not to have some responsibility in order to be a voter,” he added.

The push to expand voting rights comes as 55 percent of eligible ballots in New Jersey were cast in the 2018 midterms, a nearly 20 percent increase from 2014, and slightly above the 47 percent national turnout rate during the midterm election.

But reforms don’t always equal greater participation.

“A lot of times people oversell this as a panacea for turnout, and the costs of voting are only half the story,” said Scot Schraufnagel, a political scientist at Northern Illinois University who studies voting patterns, noting that education and poverty also play a key role in voter engagement.

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