Democracy Act makes necessary updates to N.J. election laws | Opinion

From The Star-Ledger

By New Jersey Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald

American democracy has always been built on the power of the vote. As President Lyndon Johnson once said, "The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice."

Despite that power, New Jersey has seen voter participation decline to historic levels in nearly every election over the past decade. We must ask ourselves why this has happened. Many factors are involved, but chief among them is our own election laws.

They are outdated relics from a different era – and a major part of the problem. 

In June, our primary election achieved the dubious honor of breaking a 90-year-old record for low turnout, with just 5.1 percent of eligible voters exercising their fundamental right to vote. But this is not merely a problem that afflicts primary elections – in 2013 we experienced our lowest turnout in state history for a gubernatorial election, 39 percent.

And in 2011, we set a new all-time low for mid-term election turnout at a paltry 27 percent of registered voters. 

New Jersey is ranks 39 in the United States in the percentage of eligible voters who are registered at 64.3 percent, compared to 82.8 percent for the top state. And, New Jersey is also ranked 39 in the country on average voter turnout at 54.5 percent, compared to the top state at 73.3 percent.

We have to reverse these alarming trends, because I believe that democracy works best with strong participation from the electorate.

My legislative colleagues and I have advanced the Democracy Act, a series of reforms to modernize our election system and improve voters' ability to participate in the electoral process. These reforms take several important steps to strengthen our democracy – allowing in-person early voting in every county, improving access to registration for young voters, making it easier for our armed servicemen and women to vote while overseas and cracking down on voter fraud. 

The good news is the Democracy Act will draw from successful experiences and processes used by other states to improve voters' participation and access to the ballot. With the Democracy Act, New Jersey would join many other states in the nation in permitting online voter registration. We'd also follow the example of a recent Oregon law creating automatic voter registration, a measure which added nearly 300,000 new voters shortly after enactment in that state. And, we'd take the common sense step of making election information available in more languages so that all New Jerseyans can exercise their fundamental right to vote. 

The Democracy Act would also take decisive steps to strengthen the integrity of our elections. We would crack down on voter intimidation by codifying a bipartisan agreement to prevent harassment of minority voters at the polls. We would reduce voter fraud by making it easier to challenge election results and improving transparency for such challenges. We would also eliminate special elections such as the October 2013 election for U.S. Senate, an election that was costly, illogical and confused and disenfranchised voters in the way it was scheduled. 

It's sobering to consider that our current voting laws originated from a rural, farm-dwelling society. Times have changed, but New Jersey remains stuck in a voting quagmire, with outdated laws and procedures that deter people from voting. New Jersey is in desperate need of this Democracy Act that would modernize our election laws. The facts show the status quo is neither working nor acceptable. We need real reform and we need it now. Gov. Chris Christie must sign this bill.

Louis Greenwald is a Democrat who represents the 6th Legislative District in Camden and Burlington counties. He is the New Jersey Assembly Majority leader.

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