Opinion: Allow New Jersey Residents to Register to Vote on Election Day

New Jersey's voter registration deadline is October 18. Millions will go to the polls on November 8th, but roughly 250,000 New Jerseyans will have no choice but to sit out the election, all because of the state’s outdated and unnecessary advance voter registration requirement.

In this highly divisive electoral season, one thing that just about all Americans agree on is that the right to vote is sacrosanct. And there is nearly universal consensus that it would be better for our democracy if voter turnout—which stood at just under 54 percent in 2012—were higher.

But advance registration requirements unnecessarily stand in the way of participation by eligible citizens. In New Jersey, aspiring voters must register, by mail or in person, at least three weeks before an election. (Unfortunately, New Jersey does not make voter registration available online, unlike 32 other states.)

That is a relatively easy task for those who live at the same address for years on end, but in our increasingly mobile society, it is much more challenging for those who move regularly. Young adults, including college students, and those with low incomes are especially likely to fit into this category.

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Alexis Karteron is an assistant professor at Rutgers University Law School in Newark.

Advance registration also makes voting impossible for those who become eligible after the voter registration deadline but before Election Day, such as newly naturalized citizens and those released from supervision by the criminal justice system. And, advance registration requirements also keep people whose interest in the election peaks late from voting.

In 2012, millions of Americans searched online for information about voter registration after their states’ registration deadlines; research suggests that 3-4 million more people would have voted if registration were uniformly available on Election Day.

Because citizens in all of these categories have an affirmative right to vote under the New Jersey Constitution, the Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic, ACLU of New Jersey, and New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center brought a lawsuit in 2011 seeking to require New Jersey to make registration available on Election Day, like 11 other states and the District of Columbia do now, and three more states will in the near future.

The plaintiffs in the case, including the Rutgers University Student Assembly, three community organizations, and several disenfranchised would-be voters, recently petitioned the Supreme Court of New Jersey to hear the case.

Our basic argument is that with the creation of a Statewide Voter Registration System (SVRS), required of all states by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, New Jersey has a top-of-the-line system that electronically verifies the eligibility of new voters and guards against double voting and fraud. Accordingly, Election Day registration is feasible without major administrative burdens.

The New Jersey Constitution therefore requires removal of the advance registration requirement because it is now an unnecessary barrier to the franchise.

Even with the SVRS, critics of Election Day registration contend that advance registration is necessary to prevent fraud and chaos at the polls, where workers could be overwhelmed by new voters.

Because the weeks leading up to elections are hectic for local election officials, they say closing the poll books early is necessary to ensure that they can focus on critical tasks, such as orchestrating the deployment of voting machines and poll workers.

But the experience in other states that have successfully implemented Election Day registration tells us that these objections are overblown. None of those states has been a hotbed of election fraud or dysfunction, and there’s no reason to think that the experience in New Jersey would be any different.

Making registration available on Election Day is an easy way to remove an obstacle to participation and to improve voter turnout. The Legislature could act to require this innovation, but in the meantime, we all should hope the Supreme Court takes the case.

Alexis Karteron is an assistant professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark and director of the Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic.

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