New Jersey lawmakers want a state Voting Rights Act

By: - October 5, 2022 7:12 am

Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly said New Jersey does not want to see the kinds of “voting nightmare” stories seen in other states. (Photo by Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

New Jersey lawmakers are looking to pass a new set of voting protections as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs a case that could see key provisions of the Voting Rights Act gutted.

The bill would give the state Division on Civil Rights oversight powers over elections that impinge the ability of people belonging to a protected class — defined here as members of a race, color, or language minority group — to influence an election or elect candidates of their choice.

“I just think it’s really important for folks in general,” said Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic), one of the bill’s prime Assembly sponsors. “Voting should be something that is a right for all.”

Dubbed the John Lewis Voting Rights Act of New Jersey — after the congressman and civil rights activist who died in July 2020 — the measure would also grant state courts broad powers to tweak election rules and dates if they find existing rules violate its provisions.

In such cases, the bill would grant courts the power to redraw voting districts, increase the size of a given governing body, move elections to coincide with higher turnout primaries and general elections, and demand additional polling locations and voting hours, among other things.

It would also create preclearance rules at the state level that could require localities that breach the state Voting Rights Act to get approval from the Division on Civil Rights or a state court before changing any part of their electoral process.

“That’s something we can’t do now. We have to go in after the fact and sue,” said Philip Hensley, a democracy policy analyst for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. “The court door is barred for many plaintiffs under the current federal VRA. This new state VRA would let us bring these suits and defend voting rights.”

Federal preclearance provisions were struck down by U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.

The state-level Voting Rights Act would also demand ballots be printed in more languages. While most New Jersey counties are already required to print ballots in English and Spanish under a provision of the federal law, few counties print ballots in other languages.

The federal Voting Rights Act requires election officials to begin providing ballots in a language if 5% or more of their voting-age citizens speak that language and have limited English proficiency. Bergen County prints ballots in Korean under that rule.

The state proposal would bring that threshold down to 2% and more than 300 individuals. It would also mandate bilingual ballots if more than 4,000 voting-age citizens in a given political subdivision speak the same language and have limited proficiency in English.

“New Jersey obviously has incredible linguistic diversity, so language accessibility is a big thing that we can do better on,” Hensley said.

New Jersey case law separately requires that bilingual ballots be printed in election districts where at least 10% of registered voters speak Spanish as their primary language.

Hensley added the bill should contain funding to keep the language provisions from burdening local governments.

The absence of funding could spell trouble for the law with the Council on Local Mandates, which in 2019 struck down a state law requiring counties to continue to send mail-in ballots to voters who had requested one in a past election, ruling it was an unfunded mandate. (That law was passed again, with the new version including an appropriation.)

Wimberly said the Office of Legislative Services is analyzing funding levels but added it is too early to peg the bill’s cost.

Federal headwinds

The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down portions of the federal Voting Rights Act twice since 2013, and it heard arguments Tuesday over a section of the act that bars voting rules that discriminate against residents based on race.

That case stems from a challenge to Alabama congressional districts drawn after the 2020 census.

A federal appellate panel in January unanimously ruled the state’s new map was illegal, finding the state improperly packed Black voters into a single district, leaving them with influence over just one of the state’s House seats despite accounting for 27% of Alabama’s population.

But the U.S. Supreme court, in a 5-4 vote, blocked a lower court order demanding Alabama draw a new map for this year’s elections, and its conservative majority could see federal voting protections further eroded.

“I think the coming elections in Georgia and some of these major elections, you’re going to hear stories of voting nightmares for folks,” Wimberly said. “We want to make sure that’s not the case here in New Jersey.”

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.