Trenton – The ACLU-NJ announced today the completion of a survey that reveals numerous shortcomings of New Jersey county election offices when it comes to registering ex-offenders to vote.
“The Survey Results are disheartening,” said Anne Barron, ACLU-NJ Ex-Offender Voting Rights Project Director, “of the 21 county offices, 43% do not follow the law with respect to registering citizens who have finished their criminal sentences. Nine counties put up illegal roadblocks in the way of eligible citizens trying to vote, requiring personal visits and/or unnecessary, and sometimes unobtainable, documents.”
The Survey Results illuminate New Jersey’s slap-dash approach to the voting process, with each county effectively acting on its own and the state Division of Elections unable to oversee and provide uniformity. Given that voter registration and voter education are mainstays of a vibrant democracy, the lack of cohesion in New Jersey is unacceptable.
According to New Jersey law, people in prison or on parole or probation cannot vote. However, once they have completed their sentences, they become eligible to vote again, with the same rights and responsibilities as any other citizen. Unfortunately, many county election offices have failed to follow the law.
The ACLU-NJ became aware of the scope of the problem during its 2004 Ex-Offender Voting Rights Project, which sought to register ex-offenders to vote. The ACLU-NJ received complaints from a number of ex-offenders who were denied their right to vote in 2004, particularly from Salem, Camden and Essex counties. While we knew that many ex-offenders believed that they had lost their voting rights forever, we discovered that this ignorance extended to the very governmental agencies that service re-entering prisoners. To learn more about the problems, the ACLU-NJ used a survey developed by the Brennan Center to uncover the practices for handling ex-offender voter registrations in each county election office. We questioned election office staff about the voting rights of people convicted of a crime, notification procedures, and also about general rules for voter registration.
Twelve of the county elections offices registered ex-offenders automatically, as required by law (Atlantic, Cape May, Gloucester, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris, Somerset, Sussex, Union, Warren and usually Essex). However, nine election offices, (Bergen, Burlington, Camden, Cumberland, Hudson, Passaic, Hunterdon, Ocean and Salem) continue to demand illegally that ex-offenders provide “proof of release,” either in person or through the mail.
We also compared the ease with which ex-offenders could obtain information about their voting rights in the 21 counties. Our surveyors had great difficulty in getting correct information from the majority of election offices. Our surveyors received minimal assistance, unable even to get just basic information. Due to lack of written procedures, use of temporary election office employees during the October registration period, and insufficient training of election office staff, ACLU-NJ surveyors often had to make at least three follow-up calls to get information. Two counties told the surveyor to call the office “investigator” for further information, a suggestion guaranteed to stop many ex-offenders from continuing.
The ACLU-NJ alerted the Division of Elections to the ex-offender registration problems and asked for clarification of various voting procedures. Unfortunately, we received little in the way of clear rules or uniformity.
The New Jersey State Legislature neglected to give the Division on Elections, the very government entity in charge of elections, any real authority or power. Rather, that authority rests with the Office of the Attorney General, which also failed to provide us with any written clarification on the policies and practices concerning registration of ex-offenders. New Jersey is the only state across the country to have the Division of Elections under the authority of the Office of the Attorney General. This sets up a conflict of interest, where the enforcement agency and the regulatory agency are the same.
The Survey Results of the ACLU-NJ’s survey reveal ongoing problems and lack of uniformity with the registration of citizens who have paid their debt to society and want to reclaim their vote. Much of the trouble is systemic, resulting from little state oversight of the central mechanism of our democracy, the voter registration process. Consequently, the electoral map of New Jersey is a hodge-podge of rules and procedures, most of which are not available in any written form, apparently passed down, word-of-mouth, from worker to worker.
ACLU-NJ strongly urges that the Division of Elections be removed from under the direction of the Office of the Attorney General and given autonomy, authority and enforcement powers over elections and voter registration around the state.
Furthermore, the ACLU-NJ calls upon the Legislature to follow the recommendations of New Jersey Citizen’s Coalition on implementation of the Help America Vote Act, laid out in “Making New Jersey’s Votes Count.” Voting reform legislation now under consideration must include uniform training for all election officials who have contact with the voting public, as well as link the federally-mandated statewide voter database to the criminal justice agencies for instant verification of a citizen’s completion of sentence, rather than relying on inadequate resources to investigate all incoming voter registrations.
And the ACLU-NJ calls upon the Office of the Attorney General to fulfill its exhortation to “be powerful, be heard,” by ensuring that all eligible citizens’ right to vote is protected. Today, May 9th, is the last day to register before the June primary. How many citizens will be unjustly denied their right to vote? Will the state take the necessary steps to resolve these ongoing problems, problems voting advocacy groups have been warning the state about, before the end of the next voter registration period?