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RUBIN-STANKIEWICZ: New Jersey's unwillingness to pass same-day voter registration betrays democracy

Column: Rutgers Realities

New Jersey blocking same day voter registration is a form of voter suppression and will ultimately hurt voting turnout among youth.  – Photo by Arnaud Jaegers / Unsplash

It is September, the start of voter registration season. This is the time when people start to ask the question: How can we get out the youth vote?

There is a simple action the New Jersey Legislature could take to improve voter registration rates among young people: Pass A5701/S247 legislation allowing people to register to vote on Election Day.

More than 20 other states and Washington, D.C., have same-day voter registration. States with same-day voter registration have seen a 5 percent increase on average in overall voter turnout and a 10 percent average increase in voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds. Youth also cite not being registered as the most common reason why they did not vote.

Regardless, same-day voter registration legislation remained stagnant in the New Jersey Legislature, and Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-N.J.) has publicly indicated his lack of support for the bill.

Scutari said, "Someone's got to convince me why people have the sacred right to vote, and they can't decide to do it until that day."

Why is there such opposition to same-day voter registration, especially in a state where the Governorship, Senate and Assembly are all controlled by the same party?

The New Jersey voter registration deadline is set 21 days ahead of an election. To vote in this year's November 7 election, in which the majority of the New Jersey State Legislature will be on the ballot, residents will have to register by Tuesday, October 17.

There are many reasons why people would need to register to vote after the three-week deadline.

Someone might have moved into New Jersey and be unaware of the registration deadline, like Jasmine Hodari. Someone might not notice an error with their voter registration until after the deadline, like Laura Sullivan. Someone might be released from prison after the 21-day registration deadline, barring them from exercising their right to vote in the upcoming election even though they were released before the election, like Maurice Espino.  

The three-week registration deadline also ends registration before elections start to receive the most media coverage. Voters should not be shamed for being unaware of this deadline when media outlets they rely on for election updates may only begin to truly focus on election coverage after voters can no longer register.

Implementing policies that make it easier for people to vote has a proven track record of increasing voter turnout, particularly among youth in New Jersey.

Between the 2016 and 2020 elections, youth voter turnout in New Jersey increased by 22 percentage points, a staggering increase that resulted in New Jersey having the highest rate of youth voter turnout in the nation in 2020.

The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) noted in its analysis of this increase in youth voter turnout that New Jersey was not one of the "battleground states, which suggests that electoral laws and policies may have a higher impact on youth participation than competitiveness" of an electoral race. For example, New Jersey automatically mailed ballots to all registered voters in 2020 to simplify the mail-in voting process during the pandemic.

It is simple: In order to increase voter turnout, we must make it easier for people to vote. Our elected officials should treat voting as a right and work to make it more accessible rather than something "earned" by registering by an arbitrary date.

But New Jersey's legislative processes are not designed to encourage citizen involvement. For instance, the 2021 state budget was only made available for the public to read a few minutes before the legislative budget committees voted on it that evening, offering no real opportunity for public input.

Committee meetings are often held during the day when many people are unavailable. While citizens can listen to committee proceedings remotely, if someone wants to speak to legislators, they must testify at the statehouse.

Even if someone can attend a committee hearing, sometimes committees are delayed for hours as politicians negotiate deals in private and make last-minute legislative changes to ensure it has enough support to make it through the committee. People who sign up to testify for that bill may have no idea what the final text of the bill they came to speak about even says.

New Jersey is also the only state in the country to format its primary ballots around the county line, which gives prime ballot location to a group of candidates endorsed by the county party, who are placed together in a horizontal or vertical line on the ballot.

Candidates who are placed on the line in one county but do not get the line in another county perform an average of 35 percentage points better when they are on the line. This incentivizes politicians to prioritize the will of the people who decide whether they are placed on the line over the will of the voters.

It is unsurprising that when the New Jersey Legislature functions in such an untransparent manner, there is a lack of motivation to make the voting process conducive to greater citizen participation in a way that would make election results and turnout potentially less predictable for legislators and their campaigns.

Same-day voter registration has 30 legislative sponsors and bipartisan support, even as Scutari remains unwilling to move the bill in the Senate. The New Jersey Legislature also has implemented some critical voting rights measures in recent years, including early voting and restoring the right to vote to people on probation and parole.

But we need to change the culture in Trenton that expects and thrives on the status quo of a disengaged citizenry. Our voices belong in the halls of power, and the New Jersey Legislature should make it easier for us to engage with governmental processes that affect us so directly, in the ballot box and beyond.

Same-day voter registration is an important first step.

Raisa Rubin-Stankiewicz is a senior in the School of Arts and Sciences majoring in political science and minoring in psychology. Her column, "Rutgers Realities," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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