Voter Groups Go To Court To Fight For Voting Rights of Students

October 27, 2010

TRENTON – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Project Vote and the Fair Elections Legal Network today submitted a brief seeking to ensure that the Department of Education fulfill a twenty-five-year old mandate to protect the voting rights of private, charter, and public school students, which the DOE has thus-far failed to meet.

“It is appalling that 25 years after the High School Voter Registration Law was issued, there are still no regulations on the books protecting the rights of private and charter school students under the law, and only the most minimal of protections for district public school students,” said Ed Barocas, the ACLU-NJ legal director.

In 1985, New Jersey passed a law giving all eligible high school seniors the right to receive a voter registration form and voter education as they neared adulthood. The law required the DOE to pass regulations to effectuate the law and ensure compliance. But the DOE never did. And even when the DOE earlier this year created a minimal and insufficient compliance requirement for public schools, it still wholly ignored the rights of students at private and charter schools.

In June of this year, the DOE turned down the voting rights groups’ formal request to tighten the oversight requirements. The groups therefore took state educators to court. This appeal of the DOE decision is based on a section of the voter law that says the commissioner of education “shall adopt” regulations on the voting law.

“The result is that students in 40 to 60 percent of school districts are not being educated about a fundamental aspect of our democracy, or are not receiving the tools they need to register and to vote,” stated Robert Brandon, president of the Fair Elections Legal Network. “When Governor Tom Kean signed the law in 1985, it was out of a civic-minded purpose to fight low rates of voter registration and voting that tend to occur among youth. Today’s lawsuit asks the State to honor that promise to New Jersey’s students and enforce their rights under the voting laws.”

The case is especially important for the over 13,000 students who graduate from private and charter schools every year. The State doesn’t monitor those schools at all for compliance with the voter registration law.

The 84,000 students who graduate annually from New Jersey public schools will also benefit from this case, which asks the appeals court to bolster state oversight and monitoring over their voter registration practices for public schools. Currently, school administrators must check a box on a 144-page checklist, once every three years, to affirm compliance. That is the extent of oversight imposed by the State about the voting laws.

According to Census Department figures, youths age 18-24 vote at far lower rates than their older counterparts. The past two presidential elections years have shown gaps ranging from 12 to 23 percent between the rates of youth voter registration and turnout and the voter registration and turnout of the population as a whole.

Estelle Rogers of Project Vote noted that her group is engaged in a year-long project to register 100,000 high school students in five states. “Research shows that it is possible to create long-term change by encouraging life-long civic participation from young people,” said Rogers. “School-based voter registration drives are one of the best ways of accomplishing this change,” she added.

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