NEW BRUNSWICK — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, along with co-counsels Rutgers School of Law-Newark Constitutional Litigation Clinic and New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center, filed a lawsuit today arguing for Election Day voter registration to remove obstacles that impede the right to vote. The suit, filed on behalf of Rutgers University students, Middlesex County residents, the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey and New Jersey Citizen Action, aims to strengthen the right to vote for the thousands of eligible New Jersey voters disenfranchised each election cycle.
“The facts show that states that allow election-day registration have substantially higher voter participation, and they also show that election-day registration has functioned smoothly there,” said Professor Frank Askin, Director of the Rutgers School of Law-Newark Constitutional Litigation Clinic.
The lawsuit (63k PDF), filed in Middlesex County Superior Court, argues that New Jersey cannot justify its prohibition against voters who try to register less than 21 days before an election. Election-day registration would provide recourse against burdensome factors often outside of voters’ control that currently rob many thousands of New Jerseyans of their right to vote in elections.
“An overwhelming number of the problems the ACLU-NJ sees year after year monitoring polls and helping voters could be solved in one fell swoop by instituting Election Day registration,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “Two of the main culprits in denying people their right to vote — citizens not receiving provisional ballots or not having those ballots counted — would be problems of the past.”
New Jersey’s electronic voter databases, modernized in accordance with the Help America Vote Act, can rapidly verify voters’ information uses for its elections, rendering the 21-day registration deadline obsolete. Further, the current regulations are incompatible with modern political campaigning, which targets voters most heavily in the week before an election, when voter interest peaks.
“Historically, the state instituted the 21-day registration cutoff in order to verify voters’ identities, but advances in technology now make that deadline moot,” said Renee Steinhagen, Executive Director of New Jersey Appleseed. “The state has no legitimate reason to cut off voter registration in the weeks before an election, and consequently voters will feel an even greater impact on their rights.”
New Jersey’s overly strict registration regulations disproportionately deny the right to vote to young adults, who move more frequently than older adults. Poll workers in 2009 denied Rutgers student Gabriela Grzybowski a provisional ballot, which would have registered to vote for the next election, when her name was omitted from the rolls. When she attempted to re-register in 2010, she discovered she had missed the deadline.
Rutgers student Beth Breslaw faced a similar situation in 2010. An injury put Breslaw in crutches, preventing her from traveling to Mercer County, where she was registered. She tried to vote in Middlesex County, where she was a resident, but the 21-day rule prevented her ballot from counting in that election, even though it registered her in Middlesex County for the next one.
“Our generation gets an unfair reputation for not being engaged in the political process, but when I look around, that’s just not what I see,” said Matt Cordeiro, Vice President of the Rutgers Student Association, a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. “I see students desperate to have a say in their democracy, but when they come up against hurdles every step of the way, they question whether the system is functional enough for their vote to count.”
Other students have suffered from administrative failure in processing applications collected through voter-registration drives, including plaintiff and Rutgers student Edward Vasconellos, who had no recourse when his name didn’t appear on the rolls in both 2007 and 2008. His provisional ballot registered for the next election, but because he could not prove he had registered 21 days before the previous election, his vote in that election did not count.
The case, captioned Rutgers University Student Assembly v. Middlesex County Board of Elections, was filed in Middlesex County Superior Court.