The bill, which would allow New Jerseyans to register to vote and cast ballots on Election Day, would increase voter turnout, advocates say. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)
A proposal to allow New Jerseyans to register to vote and cast ballots on Election Day is back in legislative limbo because of opposition from the state’s most powerful legislator.
Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) came out against the proposal last week, voicing concerns about its impact on campaigns, already strained election workers, and public confidence in the state’s voting systems.
“Someone’s got to convince me why people have the sacred right to vote and they can’t decide to do it until that day. With all the concern about voting, I haven’t been convinced,” he said during a press gaggle, adding he was open to changing his mind.
His comments were first reported by NJ.com.
Under existing law, residents must be registered 21 days before a given election to be eligible to vote.
The current version of the bill would largely cut that to eight days while allowing residents to register and cast ballots on Election Day. It would also permit them to register at their county clerk’s office until 3 p.m. the day before the election.
Drafted amendments the Senate State Government Committee planned to adopt at an early March hearing before the bill was pulled would have kept the 21-day deadline intact while removing the option to register at clerks’ offices.
Those amendments would also allow voters to register and cast ballots at the state’s early voting sites.
Scutari’s opposition resembles the stance of his predecessor, former Senate President Steve Sweeney, who before losing re-election last year said the state was “never going to get same-day” registration because of opposition among the upper chamber’s Democrats.
Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson), the bill’s prime Senate sponsor, said she is still whipping votes in its favor but declined to say how many members she is still attempting to win over.
The campaign connection
The situation has changed at least some since Sweeney made his declaration last year. The former Senate president never said he opposed the policy, while Scutari last week named a series of concerns about its impacts, beginning with candidates’ inability to know their pool of voters.
“We have a register of people that are about to vote so people know who their constituency is. It’s not everybody,” he said. “People who don’t exercise their right to vote don’t necessarily get the same attention paid to them by people running for office, to be quite frank.”
Studies conducted across decades have shown same-day registration leads to an increase in voter turnout of between two and seven percentage points, with the most significant gains seen among young, Black, and Latino voters.
Because some of those voters would be unknown until they register on Election Day, that could complicate campaigns — particularly primaries in highly partisan districts and general elections in competitive districts — but advocates said that’s a feature, not a bug.
“It seems that they’re worried, at least to an extent, about voters they can’t predict swaying some elections,” said Henal Patel, director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s democracy and justice program. “It’s true — voters sway elections. That’s what’s supposed to happen. That’s how democracy works. That’s a good thing.”
Patel’s institute, along with the New Jersey League of Woman Voters and a bevy of other advocacy groups, have long supported same-day registration as a means of boosting turnout and have begun lobbying lawmakers in favor of the bill. They intend to continue that push through April, when the Legislature is expected to focus solely on budget hearings.
Too much too fast?
Scutari also expressed worry the practice would further strain election officials already stretched thin by recent election reforms, like the expansion of mail-in voting and adoption of in-person early voting.
“We can’t get the tallies now for days on end. Imagine if we have — and I don’t think it’ll be that many people — but people showing up to vote, voting provisionally, by the way, and figuring out if that’s a legitimate vote,” he said. “How long is that really going to take?”
Some of last year’s legislative races were not called for more than a week after Election Day, the results delayed by voluminous vote-by-mail returns, including ballots that reached election officials during the state’s six-day vote-by-mail grace period.
Maureen Bugdon, the president of the New Jersey Association of Election Officials, said she and her peers support same-day registration but are concerned about the breakneck pace of recent reforms.
“It’s been so fast and furious that we really need to be able to have our Statewide Voter Registration System catch up,” said Bugdon, who is Atlantic County’s superintendent of elections. “It’s a relatively new system that still has challenges, and each time a new law is enacted, other priorities for election officials get pushed back so the effects of the law can be put into the system.”
Because same-day registration could be carried out using provisional ballots, it’s possible the policy would have little impact on election officials’ workloads, Patel said. But Bugdon said election officials might have to spend time conducting research to account for errors on forms submitted by would-be voters.
“You don’t want to get into a position where you can’t find that voter based on the form they submitted because now you’ve got somebody whose vote would have counted but we can’t tell who it is to appropriately register them,” Bugdon said.
Other election officials in at least one county have worried same-day registration could add to election result delays.
The elephant in the room
Among Scutari’s stated concerns is the possibility same-day registration would fuel election fraud conspiracies like those championed by Donald Trump following his 2020 re-election loss.
“It’s safe and it’s secure,” Patel said. “If there is a misunderstanding about it, that’s a voter education problem, not an issue with same-day registration.”
Support for same-day registration in the Senate and Assembly Republican caucuses appears to be light, but it recently won its first Republican sponsor, Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Union).
The former Assembly minority leader, a moderate, said he signed on as a co-sponsor because the policy would get more GOP voters out to the polls, too, noting the courts rejected numerous filings lodged by Trump’s legal team that claimed fraud.
“It’s not Republican or Democrat. There are Republicans who realized they didn’t register,” he said, adding, “I’m tired of these wild allegations that Republicans lose because there’s widespread voter fraud. I just don’t buy it.”
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