Institute President & CEO Ryan Haygood writes
In the midst of a devastating pandemic, New Jersey is considering whether our July primary election should be a traditional in-person voting system or all vote-by-mail. Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to make an announcement any day now.
But this is a false choice between two limited options, each of which will suppress a significant number of votes – particularly, as we are already experiencing in this public health crisis, disproportionately impacting Black and other people of color and other vulnerable populations. The coronavirus pandemic has already exposed cracks in our foundation that are causing earthquakes in Black and other communities of color already besieged by structural racism. We must not make that worse.
Instead, we must strengthen our foundation by choosing democracy, and both expand vote-by-mail and have in-person polling places.
The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, along with the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, the Center for American Progress, New Jersey State Conference NAACP, New Jersey Policy Perspective, New Jersey Working Families, Salvation and Social Justice, the League of Women Voters of America, UU Faith Action NJ, ACLU-NJ, and other state and national partner organizations have urged Governor Murphy to do just that as part of a package of comprehensive recommendations provided for New Jersey’s elections.
First, New Jersey must absolutely expand and encourage people to vote by mail. The state should send every voter a ballot – not just an application – in all relevant languages, with prepaid postage. And we must educate people about how to vote by mail and the fact that voting by mail is secure. People must have the option to vote without putting their health at risk by waiting in crowded polling places as voters recently did in Wisconsin.
Second, New Jersey must accommodate voters for whom voting by mail is not feasible, including people with language challenges, certain disabilities, or without a regular home address where they can receive mail. We must also confront the reality that voting by mail is racialized: Black people, in part because of the long history of voter suppression in this country that endures today, strongly prefer to vote in person. A recent report showed that just 11% of Black voters cast ballots by mail in 2018, compared with 23.5% of white voters.
New Jersey must have enough in-person polling locations to prevent large crowds. Polling places must follow CDC guidelines for safety, including disinfecting all material and machines, providing personal protective equipment to all poll workers, and maintaining social distancing at polling places. We must also have in-person early voting for at least 14 days so as to limit crowds.
Relatedly, we must relax our 21-day voter registration deadline, including adopting same-day registration. With people quarantining, in hospitals, and facing unprecedented daily challenges right now, voters should not have to encounter arbitrary voter registration deadlines.
In this time of crisis, we must ensure that we not only protect against restricting democracy but that we also expand access to it.
An expanded democracy is consistent with the priorities of New Jersey residents, as evident by the progress our state has made through collective advocacy over the last two years.
We won an end to prison-based gerrymandering — the modern day “3/5ths Clause” that counts incarcerated people at the location of their prison facilities, instead of their home communities, for the purpose of legislative redistricting.
And we secured automatic – and online – voter registration to make the promise of democracy more accessible. The online voter registration law does not go into effect until mid-July – after the primary – but we have urged our elected officials to have that system ready earlier.
All of this remarkable progress took place in one legislative session because together we chose democracy.
Now we face the challenge of making these historic voting rights reforms real – and the opportunity to build upon them – as we simultaneously fight another crisis in the form of the coronavirus pandemic.
We can do that by choosing democracy and providing in-person and expanded vote-by-mail opportunities. We urge you to use your voice to urge Governor Murphy to do the same.
Advocacy works. Indeed, it is what democracy requires.
To read Ryan's full Op-Ed in its original format, click here