ACLU-NJ Launches Largest-Ever Voter Protection Effort

November 2, 2008

Advocates prepare for potential Election Day problems

Newark - Today the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey announced its largest voter advocacy effort ever for Tuesday's election, with more than 175 volunteer poll monitors and attorneys available to assist voters at most county courthouses. The organization also registered nearly 700 pre-trial detainees to vote in Essex and Hudson County correctional facilities.

"With the heightened interest we've seen throughout this election, we're preparing for potential problems and we're redoubling our efforts," said Deborah Jacobs, Executive Director for the ACLU-NJ. "We want to make sure that every eligible citizen has the right to vote and that every vote counts."

The ACLU-NJ, with the help of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey Education Fund, will deploy poll monitors throughout New Jersey to hand out voting rights cards, answer voter questions and assist individuals whose voting rights are denied. Unfortunately, the State has limited the number of monitors that the ACLU-NJ can deploy to one per polling location. In addition, poll monitor access to voters is constricted due to an Attorney General rule requiring anyone wishing to distribute information -- even non-partisan voter rights cards -- to stay 100 feet away from the polling places. The ACLU-NJ has challenged this rule in court and has an appeal pending before the State Supreme Court that will not be heard until long after the last ballots this election are cast.

ACLU-NJ attorneys will be on hand in 13 county courthouses to provide legal assistance and observe how voters' claims are adjudicated. The New Jersey Public Advocate has also said it will have attorneys available to assist voters in many county courthouses.

"Voters who go to court to challenge denied votes need to know that the representatives of the Attorney General are not there to represent them, but to work on behalf of the Board of Elections," said Ed Barocas, ACLU-NJ Legal Director. "Voters who seek assistance can turn to attorneys from the ACLU-NJ or the Office of the Public Advocate, who will be available at various courthouses around the state to represent them."

The ACLU-NJ and LWVNJ will staff its Vote Line, 1-800-792-VOTE, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day to answer voters' questions and offer assistance with problems voters may encounter at the polls.

Our Active Voting Rights Advocacy

  • Proper Distribution of Provisional and Emergency Ballots.

Improper distribution of both provisional ballots -- ballots for people who believe they are registered to vote but are told they cannot -- and emergency ballots for machine malfunctions has proven a recurring problem in past elections. This year especially is important because several counties have said they may not be able to process all new voter registrations in time for Election Day.

"Knowing to provide provisional ballots is critically important this year in particular," said Jacobs. "Several counties have said that they may not be able to process all new voter registrations in time for Election Day -- meaning thousands of eligible voters could have their right to vote challenged because of the State's inaction." The ACLU-NJ has urged the State to provide all resources necessary to help counties process every registration before the polls open tomorrow.

  • Our Lawsuit to Certify Voting Machines.

The accuracy of voting machines has also raised concerns for the ACLU-NJ, which has joined the Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic lawsuit Gusciora v. Codey, which concerns the fact that New Jersey's electronic voting machines cannot be adequately certified or examined, as demanded by New Jersey law. As part of the case, the ACLU-NJ had to fight for the release of a report by Princeton University experts who tested the state's Sequoia voting machines and found that they are highly susceptible to hacking; the court finally released the report on October 17. The ACLU-NJ has also objected to the State's continual delays in adding voter verified paper trails to electronic voting machines.

  • Securing the Right to Vote for Citizens Who Have Past Criminal Convictions.

This year, the ACLU-NJ registered about 500 pre-trial detainees to vote in Essex County Jail and over 150 in Hudson County Jail.

"The corrections officials in both Hudson and Essex counties have been incredibly helpful to the ACLU-NJ in assisting citizens who are in jail exercise their right to vote," said Barocas. "These people have not been convicted of a crime and are innocent until proven guilty -- and therefore eligible to vote."

Before the voter registration deadline, the ACLU-NJ contacted the 21 county elections offices and found that more than one third -- eight in total -- illegally demand unnecessary documents from former prisoners trying to register to vote. These counties incorrectly stated that documentation was required to verify the completion of their criminal sentence in order to register.

The ACLU-NJ requested that the Division of Elections send written clarification to the offending counties to inform them that the law does not require citizens who have completed criminal sentences to provide extra documentation when registering. The Division of Elections has not responded to ACLU-NJ requests for a copy of such notices to the counties, and it has not confirmed whether any were sent. Following tomorrow's election, the ACLU-NJ will continue its advocacy with the Division of Elections requesting better training and education of those working in elections.

Our Concerns

One of the ACLU-NJ's top concerns is whether state and county governments will track voting problems from the polls to the courthouse. The State Division of Elections does not report on election problems and solutions, making it difficult to understand why problems happened and therefore making it a challenge to resolve them.

"Information about what goes wrong at the polls hasn't been well documented or analyzed by elections officials in the past, making recurring problems worse," said Jacobs. "That leaves advocacy groups to recommend changes needed to make elections as successful as possible -- a task that really should be the duty of the state."

The ACLU-NJ has advocated for improvements to New Jersey voting systems and met with the Secretary of State and elections officials on several occasions -- as recently as last month. In September, the ACLU-NJ sent a letter urging the Division of Elections to take critical steps before Election Day to help ensure voting rights, including making the "Am I registered?" inquiry form on the Division of Elections website more functional; clarifying the language on the website concerning identification requirements; and providing counties with standard procedures concerning county-based intake of voting complaints.

The Divisions of Elections has not responded, and it does not appear that any recommendations have been implemented.

Read the ACLU-NJ and LWVNJ report on elections issues that arose during the February presidential primary, which includes recommendations for poll monitor training and voter education.

Category: Elections & Voting

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