Voting Rights Organizations Applaud Court’s Mandate Protecting Private School Students’ Voting Rights

April 25, 2011

NEWARK — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Project Vote, and the Fair Elections Legal Network today applauded the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division’s decision holding that the New Jersey State Board of Education failed to meet an obligation for all eligible students to receive voting materials and instruction by failing to create regulations governing those rights of private and charter school students.

“This is a significant victory for the rights of young voters, and for the voting process generally,” stated ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “We all benefit when we have an informed and engaged electorate.”

For 25 years the Department of Education failed to fully implement the 1985 Voter Registration Law, which mandates schools distribute voter registration materials and civic instruction to eligible public and non-public high school students, by not adopting rules and regulations as required. The ACLU-NJ, Project Vote and the Fair Elections Legal Network petitioned the State Board of Education in January 2010 to comply with the High School Voter Registration Law (HVRL). When the Board of Education rejected that petition in June 2010, the organizations filed a lawsuit challenging the Board’s lack of regulations covering voter education at private and charter schools. Its regulations only covered public schools, requiring them to check off a large questionnaire every three years attesting that they have complied with the law.

“School-based programs are one of the most effective means of instilling life-long voting habits,” said Niyati Shah, election counsel for Project Vote. “We hope the state board now adopts regulations that will increase voter registration and participation by young adults throughout New Jersey.”

In today's decision (92k PDF), the Appellate Division held that the agency’s “total omission of regulations covering nonpublic schools falls short of what the HVRL requires.” The Board will now be required to adopt regulations covering the rights of non-public school students. The Appellate Division additionally expressed that the agency is free to reconsider creating a comprehensive set of regulations covering both public and non-public school compliance.

“This 1985 law was enacted to fight low voting rates that tend to occur among youth,” said Robert Brandon, president of the Fair Elections Legal Network. “Our lawsuit asked the state to honor the law’s promise to all New Jersey students and provide basic information about registering and voting. We applaud today's decision to require the board to protect the rights of non-public school students as well. All high school students should now be taught the most basic civics lesson: that voting is important to a democracy.”

The voting rights organizations initially filed the petition after the Department of the Public Advocate issued a study in 2007 showing that between 40 and 60 percent of public school districts failed to comply with one of the mandates of the high school voting law: voter education and putting a registration form in students' hands. It also cited a 2004 study by a Rutgers-affiliated civic education group showing similar data.

The case is captioned In the Matter of the State Board of Education’s Denial of Petition to Adopt Regulations Implementing the New Jersey High School Voter Registration Law.

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