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Vetoing the New Jersey Democracy Act Is Anti-Voter, Unpopular, and Partisan

Damon L. Daniels

In 2014, the nation experienced a historically low voter turnout rate of approximately 36 percent. New Jersey managed to perform even worse, with a turnout of merely 31 percent, and the state’s 2015 turnout may be even lower.

As a response, the New Jersey Democracy Act, a large package of voting reforms aimed towards easing and expanding access, quickly moved through the state legislature and reached Governor Chris Christie’s desk this past June. As we move into the holiday season, the Governor has finally decided to take action. This week, he vetoed this set of reforms that his residents clearly want.

None of the measures included in the Democracy Act—which include in‑person early voting, online voter registration, pre‑registration for 16‑ and/or 17‑year‑olds, enhanced language accessibility standards, expanded provisions for overseas and military voters, and perhaps most significantly, automatic voter registration at Division of Motor Vehicles offices—should strike anyone as contentious or difficult to implement. Many of these reforms already operate across the country without controversy or fanfare. To wit:

  • Nearly two‑thirds of all states plus the District of Columbia allow voters to cast a ballot in person, which reduces long lines and increased wait times; usage of early voting has more than doubled from the year 2000 to 2012.
  • Online voter registration, which allows voters to only newly register but also check their registration status as well as voting location, currently operates in 26 states plus DC. Online registration is cost‑efficient; according to a May brief by Pew, states reported not only minimal costs for online registration systems, but also reported spending between $0.50 and $2.34 less on electronic transactions as opposed to paper transactions. Of the states that Pew surveyed, 12 of these states highlighted cost savings as one of the major benefits of upgrading to online registration.
  • Nearly half of all states allow for young voters to pre‑register at 16 and/or 17; research indicates that voters who engage with the process early are more likely to continue to participate throughout their lives.
  • The Democracy Act would have raised the thresholds by which polling locations would have been required to provide materials in languages other than English. This change is not insignificant; there are currently over 25 million Limited English Proficient U.S. residents. This population rose by 80 percent between 1990 and 2013, accounting for approximately 8.5 percent of the total U.S. population.
  • The newest reform, automatic voter registration, allows for relevant voter information that is taken while interacting with the DMV to be electronically transferred into a state’s voter registration database. New Jersey’s model provided individuals the option of opting out of the registration process. Oregon and California have passed legislation so far this year, and a number of additional states are considering similar bills. By vetoing the Democracy Act, Governor Christie becomes the first governor in the nation to do so.

New Jersey voters are largely in favor of the changes to New Jersey’s current elections system that were featured in the Democracy Act. According to an August poll conducted by Rutgers University and Eagleton, two-thirds of respondents support automatic voter registration at DMV offices as well as in‑person early voting; nearly 60 percent support online voter registration; overall, half of all respondents believe that these changes are positive for state. Additionally, nearly 60 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of Independents support reforms such as automatic voter registration.

Many of the voter modernization fixes in the Democracy Act—and each of the fixes highlighted in this article—were in fact changes that fall in line with the recommendations put forth by the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration in January of 2014. When this Commission released their report, they made clear to state the explicit voter‑oriented emphasis of their findings:

“We discovered, as officials, experts, and members of the public from across the country testified, that voters’ expectations are remarkably uniform and transcend differences of party and political perspective. The electorate seeks above all modern, efficient, and responsive administrative performance in the conduct of elections… [E]lection administration must be viewed as a subject of sound public administration. Our best election administrators attend closely to the interests, needs, and concerns of all of our voters — in large and small jurisdictions, and in urban and rural communities — just as well-managed organizations in the private sector succeed by establishing and meeting high standards for ‘customer service’.”

Expanding access to the polls is not a partisan issue—vetoing it is. The Democracy Act passed as a pro‑voter issue, and the governor’s veto does the exact opposite.