Should voter registration be arduous and time-consuming? Actually, no | Editorial

Published: Sep. 30, 2021

There are 21 US states that encourage their citizens to walk into local polling stations on Election Day, present an ID and proof of address, sign a registration certificate, and then line up to vote.

It’s called same-day registration, though some call it Democracy in a Day. It is practiced even in liberal citadels such as Idaho and Iowa and Utah. But not in New Jersey.

Here, we have a deadline to register, three weeks before every election, for reasons that no one can explain. Here, if you aren’t registered to vote in this year’s Nov. 2 elections, you must do it in the next 12 days or you don’t count. Here, we exclude people from participating in our democracy because of an arbitrary cutoff date.

New Jersey has come a long way in reforming its election laws, but same-day registration (or SDR) needs to be a part of our portfolio when the Legislature returns to session, because -- as 21 other states have learned – you don’t disenfranchise people because the calendar tells you to.

“If you care about democracy, you want everyone to have their say,” says Henal Patel of the NJ Institute for Social Justice. “Throughout history we have allowed only certain people to make these decisions – first by property rights, then by race, then by gender. This is just another barrier. Why allow it?”

A supermajority of Americans (61 percent) agree that all citizens should be allowed to register and vote on the same day. It also has the benefit of working: SDR results in a 5% voter turnout increase, and as high as a 10% increase among the 18-to-24 group. And the turnout in SDR states is invariably higher than that of non-SDR states – often by double digits.

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Yes, New Jersey has already made voting easier in the last three years, and it should be one of our proudest boasts.

We adopted automatic voter registration in 2018, which added Motor Vehicle Commission customers to the rolls. Last year, we added online registration. This year, for the first time in our history, we have nine days of early voting, starting Oct. 23.

In March, Gov. Murphy signed a bill that restored voting rights for 80,000 people who are on probation or parole. And along the way, we became more comfortable with vote-by-mail, with nearly 30 percent of primary voters using a mail-in ballot this year.

Because of these measures, New Jersey had the highest percentage of registered voters (84.6%) casting ballots in the US in 2020, trailing only the District of Columbia (86.9%).

The only job left undone is rounding up those who haven’t had the chance to register.

Call them what you will – procrastinators, stragglers, laggards. They should not forfeit their right to add their voice. As Edward B. Foley recently pointed out in the Washington Post, nobody ever said a civic duty had to be an elongated event. “Who wants to make two trips to the election administration storefront, so to speak, when one would suffice?” he asked.

That’s a good question for our lawmakers, but an SDR bill has not moved in either chamber for more than a year. There are signs, however, that this will change when they reconvene. Speaker Craig Coughlin affirmed Wednesday that “every citizen who wants to vote should be able to,” and pledged that SDR will be under “thoughtful consideration” for the lame duck agenda.

It helps, too, that Gov. Murphy recently wrote an essay for that mentioned his support of SDR.

These changes don’t always come easy, and they’re not cheap. Each reform requires more equipment, more manpower, and more training. And our election officials have been through a lot lately.

So Joanne Rajoppi of Union County, the dean of our state’s county clerks, has some advice for our lawmakers: “Give us enough lead time,” she says. “Don’t do it within 60 or 90 days before an election. Understand the costs and training involved. And get feedback from those who conduct the election.”

That’s not asking a lot, given that this reward would benefit so many.

New Jersey is building a laudable reputation for expanding democracy, and that’s no small thing. But there’s a conspicuous hole in our game. Let’s fix it, and do it right.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-10-01 05:20:51 -0700