NEWARK, N.J. -- In an effort to increase voter participation in the Garden State, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and other high-profile voter rights' advocates, during a public forum today, will urge New Jersey to reform state election law to allow residents in future elections to register to vote up to and including Election Day. This proposal, if adopted, would replacing the current system under which anyone who registers less than 21 days before an election is barred from voting until the following election. Six of the seven states that allow Election Day registration have the nation's highest voter turnout rates.
Speakers from the Eagleton New Jersey Project, New Jersey Policy Perspective, Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic and Demos will discuss how Election Day registration -- also known as same day registration -- works in other states and how to bring it to New Jersey.
"Election Day registration is one of the most effective things we can do to increase voter participation," said Deborah Jacobs, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, a co-sponsor of the "Help NJ Vote" forum.
Seven states now use Election Day registration: Maine, Minnesota, Idaho, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Wyoming and North Dakota. In a 2003 study of the six states that had Election Day registration (one more state has adopted it since then), voter participation averaged 9.7 percent higher than in New Jersey. The 2004 elections showed an overall increase on average in voter turnout of 13.6 percent in states using Election Day registration over states that didn't.
"So wide is the disparity between who votes and who could vote that there is probably not a single elected official around today who has ever received a vote from the true majority of his or her constituents," said Jon Shure, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, which has produced several reports on voting reform.
Regina Eaton, Deputy Director of the Democracy Project at Demos, reports higher voter turnout in tight races in states that practice Election Day registration. Eaton said, "Election Day registration offers voters -- who are motivated and engaged during the last month of campaigning, when there are often debates, heightened awareness of issues and mobilization efforts in competitive races -- a chance to exercise their most fundamental right and responsibility as citizens. Election Day registration makes it easier for eligible voters to participate, when many would otherwise have been denied the opportunity to vote, including new voters or people who have recently moved."
The ACLU-NJ Voting Rights for All Project works with other advocacy organizations in voter protection during New Jersey elections as part of its long-term mission to secure and enhance the rights of all citizens to vote. The ACLU-NJ's Election Day hotline typically receives complaints ranging from long-time voters whose names are missing from poll books to improper denials of voter registration to people with prior convictions. The ACLU-NJ, anticipating more registration problems when the new statewide database system becomes active, advocates for Election Day registration as a way to help voters and election officials overcome voter registration problems that implementation of the new statewide database may cause.
Legislation (S162) has been introduced in New Jersey that would establish Election Day registration. Sponsored by Senators Raymond Lesniak and Barbara Buono, the bill would permit voter registration at polling place on days of municipal primary and general elections.
The Constitutional Litigation Clinic at Rutgers School of Law-Newark has analyzed the mobility patterns of New Jerseyans over the past few years, documenting the extent of the transient lifestyles we experience today. Frequent moves and lack of information concerning voter registration rules increasingly disenfranchise eligible voters. Election Day registration is one proven response to our new demographics. "There is a time disconnect with elections and registration in New Jersey," said Professor Frank Askin, Director of the Constitutional Law Clinic. "Just as the campaigns begin to heat up, people are cut off from voter registration."
Less than 50 percent of eligible voters in New Jersey voted in the 2005 general elections. But turnout figures mask a deeper chasm between those who vote and those who do not. Not counted at all in turnout figures are people who are old enough to vote but have not registered to do so, as well as those who are old enough to vote but are deemed ineligible.
Sponsors of the "Help NJ Vote" forum chose the campus location to highlight the problems students face with voter registration. "Students who live on or near campus often find registration confusing and not successful, resulting in being turned away at the polls," said Eagleton New Jersey Project Director Ingrid Reed. "Election Day registration will help ensure that students -- and young people more broadly -- have a stronger voice in our democracy."