Advocates, lawmakers urge passage of Voting Rights Act of New Jersey

Bill expanding voting protections hasn’t moved since September

By: - February 21, 2023 4:43 pm

Sen. Shirley Turner said the state needs "full participation to have a fair and functioning democracy." (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Advocates and lawmakers gathered to urge the passage of a state-level Voting Rights Act Thursday, charging the erosion of federal voting protections means New Jersey has to act or risk disenfranchisement of its voters.

The bill, dubbed the John. R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, after the late congressman and civil rights activist, would give the state’s civil rights division oversight powers over elections where the voting rights or powers of members of a protected class are limited.

“As history teaches us, voting should not be a privilege of the few. We need full participation to have a fair and functioning democracy,” Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), the bill’s prime Senate sponsor, said during a rally in Trenton.

The measure would expand the power state courts have over elections, allowing them to change dates and rules that violate the bill’s provisions, redraw voting districts, add seats to governing bodies, and move some election dates to coincide with higher-turnout races like primaries or general elections.

The measure would also enact state-level preclearance rules, replacing federal provisions — struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 — that required certain localities to seek approval before changing election rules.

Towns and counties that breach provisions of the state Voting Rights Act would be required to obtain approval from the civil rights division or a state court before making any changes to their election processes.

The bill would also mandate multilingual ballots in any political subdivision where more than 4,000 eligible voters speak the same language and have limited proficiency in English.

Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson said legislative leadership is aware that the state-level Voting Rights Act bill is a “priority.”  (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

“I was a poll worker. I understand what it looks like when you have people walk in the door and not have someone that speaks your language,” said Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer), the bill’s prime Assembly sponsor. “I know what it means when you don’t have the paper to vote in your language and you don’t understand what’s going on.”

State courts in 2019 ruled election officials must prepare bilingual ballots in districts where at least 10% of voters speak Spanish as their primary language, but it’s not clear whether that ruling would extend to other languages.

Between 2017 and 2021, 32% of New Jersey residents ages five and up spoke a language other than English at home, according to census data.

“It is of no use to grant someone the right to vote only to disempower them and their access to the electorate simply because of the language that they speak,” said Fulvia Vargas-De León, senior counsel for LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a public-interest law group that has a long record of fighting civil rights battles.

About half of New Jersey’s 21 counties already print bilingual ballots, and at least one — Bergen County — prints ballots in Spanish and Korean in addition to English.

Reynolds Jackson said new election technologies and processes would necessitate more assistance for those with limited English proficiency.

Despite Tuesday’s show of support and the nearly 60 advocacy groups now supporting the bill, the proposal has been in stasis for months. It has not reached a committee hearing in either chamber since it was introduced on Sept. 22.

Reynolds-Jackson suggested the bill’s supporters still have to whip votes in its favor.

“We need 41 people to support it, so I think as a prime sponsor of the bill, I have some phone calls I have to make to see if there’s anything else I need to do to get the support for the bill to move, but the leadership is definitely aware this is a priority,” she said.

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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.