The following editorial appeard on the nj.com website on January 16, 2019:
Starting two weeks before the last election, residents of Essex County, where I live, got to vote early by going to the Turtle Back Zoo education building in West Orange and filling out a vote-by-mail ballot. You first had to complete an application that was processed on the spot. The procedure was time-consuming and somewhat confusing but interest was high and lines were long.
They called it early voting but it wasn’t really. Early voting as done in other states allows voters to cast their ballots up to 46 days before Election Day using voting machines at multiple polling places in each county. What Essex had was a work-around that utilized the vote-by-mail process, because state law does not authorize the real thing.
True early voting might come to New Jersey through a package of reforms that Governor Murphy is proposing, as discussed in a New York Times article on January 9.
Murphy also wants to expand access to voting through allowing same-day voter registration and online registration; restoring the right to vote to those on probation or parole; and enabling 17-year-olds who will turn 18 by Election Day to vote in the primaries. These measures would help increase voter turnout, which is dismayingly low in New Jersey and throughout the U.S. This past fall, when an energized electorate pushed the national turnout level to 47 percent, the highest for a midterm election in more than 50 years, nonvoters still outnumbered voters.
New Jersey did a little better, with about 55 percent. Much of the increase came from expanded use of vote-by-mail ballots. They were once known as absentee ballots because, in order to get one, you had to be out of town or unwell enough that you could not make it to the polls. A 2005 change in the law allows voting by mail with no excuses needed.
Election campaigns seem to start earlier and earlier and drag on endlessly, but would-be voters in New Jersey get only a single 14-hour period, regardless of what else is going on in our lives. If we had weeks to cast our ballots, far fewer of us would be kept from exercising our most fundamental democratic right by bad weather, a crisis at work, a cancelled or delayed train, an illness or any other circumstance that can interfere with civic-minded intentions.
We need to do better than using mail-in-ballots to broaden the voting window. Aside from the practicality concerns that were evident last fall in West Orange, mail-in ballots are more susceptible to tampering. The outcome of one Congressional race, in North Carolina, remains uncertified as an investigation continues into whether a political operative assisted the apparent victor by “harvesting” absentee ballots⸺collecting them from voters and either altering their selections or failing to turn them in.
Such “harvesting” is nothing new and New Jersey has had its share. There have long been stories about Hudson County officials busted for steaming ballots open and tossing those marked for political opponents and nursing home supervisors who manipulated residents to support their chosen candidates. In recent years, strict regulations have significantly reduced such chicanery, but some vulnerable New Jersey voters still face manipulation, especially in local elections.
New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center has been involved in challenging mail-in ballot harvesting schemes that typically take advantage of people residing in public housing, senior homes or other assisted living situations. Last fall, our efforts led to the indictment of three individuals in a voter bribery scheme in Hoboken, with a fourth indictment announced on January 11. For years, certain local candidates allegedly paid people up to $50 to hand over their signed absentee ballot to a campaign worker, who was then able to mark the ballot or check that it was marked as directed. Such abusive and illegal schemes must be stopped. Voter education would help but we also need to provide the opportunity to vote early at public places where voters are protected from campaign interference.
New Jersey Appleseed thus joins the Governor in his efforts to facilitate voter participation and protect the right to vote.