Recently there's been a lot of talk about an emerging new electorate in America. It includes younger people, African-Americans, and Latino voters who believe that our economy should work for everyone, not just the wealthy and well connected.
If that emerging progressive majority has a face and a city, it is Newark. A full 52 percent of Newark residents are African-American, and 34 percent are Latinos of any race. It’s also a young city, with 80 percent of its residents under the age of 65, compared to 66 percent nationally. It is dynamic, progressive and diverse, and we believe that Mayor Ras Baraka is both the example and product of the power this rising American electorate can yield.
But there’s one problem with this emerging electoral majority: it doesn’t get to the polls. Nationally, 40 percent of eligible Latinos and 27 percent of eligible African-Americans aren’t even registered to vote. Young people are also much less likely to be registered than older Americans.
Even for registered voters, participation rates America’s emerging electorate tend to be lower than the national average, thanks in part to narrow windows and high hurdles to voting. Much of the same can be said in Newark, where just 21 percent of percent of registered voters came out to the polls last November.
There are many reasons for these disparities, most of which feed on themselves in a vicious cycle of voter disengagement: high barriers to voting or voter registration leads to depressed voter turnout, yielding a non-representative government that ignores the majority in favor of the comfortable status quo, which in turn frustrates and deters more potential voters from participating in their own democracy.
Fortunately, there is a potential solution sitting on Governor Chris Christie’s desk, and all he has to do is sign it. The New Jersey Democracy Act, passed by legislators in June, would register hundreds of thousands more voters, open up the windows and locations in which our votes can be cast, and help people with physical or language limitations exercise their fundamental rights as citizens.
If Governor Christie approves the Democracy Act, New Jersey would become the second state in the country to automatically register eligible residents to vote when they go to get or renew a driver’s license at the MVC. It would expand early in-person voting, including evening and weekend hours for hard-working families. And it would use census-based language inclusion in ballot materials.
All of the provisions of the Democracy Act have been proven to increase voter registration and voter participation, especially among younger people and people of color. Oregon has already blazed a trail on automatic voter registration, and other states have passed early voting and online registration reforms with bipartisan support. At least 27 other states and the District of Columbia currently or will soon offer online voter registration.
In his public remarks on the bill, Governor Christie has raised the specter of voter fraud. But research shows that voter fraud is an imaginary problem used by politicians to justify policies that prevent their opponents from voting. None of the policies in the Democracy Act are likely to meaningfully increase isolated voter of fraud, and many will actually make our voter rolls more accurate.
Time is running out for Governor Christie to act. If he wants to veto the most progressive voting rights bill in New Jersey’s history, we won’t let that stop us. Should Governor Christie veto the Democracy Act, New Jersey Working Families will ask legislators to give voters a chance to decide on its provisions in the form of a public question on Election Day, November 2016.
A 2016 ballot question on the Democracy Act could give Newark residents an opportunity to strengthen their own voting rights, transform this city into an electoral powerhouse in the Garden State, and provide America with a glimpse of the kinds of leaders and policies its emerging new electorate might select.
Analilia Mejia is executive director of New Jersey Working Families.