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Is Early Voting Coming to New Jersey?

Brenden Timpe

New Jersey was ready when Hurricane Sandy rushed ashore the evening of October 29, 2012. Teams from FEMA and the National Guard had been activated, nuclear reactors had been shut down, and the Red Cross had prepared meals and shelters.

The carefully laid plans didn’t prevent the storm from wreaking record-setting devastation – including 37 deaths in New Jersey alone.

Given the circumstances, New Jersey did an admirable job attempting to conduct a presidential election a week later. Election officials shifted into overdrive, opening new polling places to replace those without power and allowing displaced residents to vote by mail and fax. Despite their best efforts, the state’s turnout was the lowest of any presidential election in history.

It would be tough to find a better illustration of the need to establish an early voting process, and the New Jersey Legislature appears to be on top of it. This week, a key state Senate committee cleared Sen. Nia Gill’s bill giving voters the opportunity to cast their ballot as early as 15 days before primary and general elections. A similar bill has been introduced in the General Assembly.

We live, after all, in a modern society full of civic-minded but busy individuals. There is no reason anyone should have to stand in line for six hours to cast a ballot, as some were forced to do in 2012. This is an unnecessary burden for anyone, and equivalent to disenfranchisement for those with kids to feed or jobs that pay by the hour. Early voting allows people to cast their ballot without jeopardizing their employment or the safety of their families.

In New Jersey, it also would have eased the burden for voters who were busy on Election Day scraping muck out of their basements or huddling near a gas stove to keep warm. If the early voting bill had been in place last year, these individuals could have cast their ballots a full week before the storm hit – long before the bread and milk disappeared from store shelves.

In fact, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did allow early voting in 2012, but only on an emergency basis after the hurricane. This is significant, because he may ultimately decide whether voters can cast their ballots early when the state’s legislative elections kick off later this year. Support for Sen. Gill’s proposal has so far fallen strictly along party lines, and while both chambers of the Legislature are controlled by Democrats, their majorities are not large enough to override a veto. Whether the Republican governor will stand with voters or capitulate to his party remains to be seen.