By: Tim Intelisano
In the wake of the 2020 election, the American people watched as a plethora of states enacted restrictive voting laws, that would counter the reforms undertaken to make voting easier and safer during the Covid-19 pandemic. 2020 was an unprecedented year for democracy. Election night (or perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, election week) featured drama counting mail-in-ballots across the Midwest and Sun Belt. The entire process exposed the weaknesses of the system. Instead of changing state laws that would allow counties to start counting mail-in ballots as they were received, some states forced officials to wait until Election Day, resulting in delayed results. These delays were cited by many as proof of fraud or vote tally manipulation.
While no election runs 100% smoothly, and no public official can prognosticate when global health crises will emerge, some states have enacted laws to simplify the methods by which voters can safely register and access the ballot box. One of those is the state of New Jersey.
The bill signed into law earlier this year by Governor Phil Murphy is sweeping in scope. All New Jersey counties are now required to hold nine days of early in-person voting prior to Election Day. The law applies not only to federal elections, but to statewide contests as well. And in a sharp contrast to Georgia’s attempt to keep black voters from participating in “Souls to the Polls,” a program run by churches on Sundays to permit their congregants to travel together to cast a ballot, New Jersey’s law permits in-person early voting up until the Sunday before Election Day in November.
The baseline set by the New Jersey law expands early voting well beyond what the state had previously offered. The law gives counties the discretion to open more polling locations if they so choose and requires larger counties to have more facilities available for early voting. While the national media has hailed New Jersey as an example of a progressive blue state that wants to make voting easier, in the vain of Colorado and Vermont, the legislation has also had its critics. Many county officials were concerned about requiring the new laws to take effect this year, which is an election year for statewide and legislative races across the Garden State. Many counties will be forced to purchase new voting equipment and electronic poll books. The concern is that the state has not appropriated nearly enough money to enable the counties to do this without putting a significant strain on their financial bottom lines. The financial burden of the law has caused many local officials to consider taking legal action against the bill. That said, the state is no stranger to legal challenges in court, and successfully fought off a suit from the Trump campaign last November. The campaign had objected to the state’s universal mail in balloting procedures undertaken in response to the pandemic.
New Jersey Republicans seem to take more of an issue with the price tag of the reforms than with the substance. In what should give supporters of liberal democracy some hope, even states that are far less blue than New Jersey, such as Kentucky, have enacted laws that would expand early voting for residents. Accordingly, it does not seem impossible that red and blue states alike could feature legislative compromises that could foster voting procedures that are safer and more efficient for everyone.
The future of voting laws in this country seems unclear. For a time, New Jersey seemed determine to try and surpass mere remedial legislation that would expand voting rights, by tinkering with the prospect of allowing for internet voting. While the state scrapped that plan following pushback from cyber experts and citizens alike, who warned that such a concept was too vulnerable to external influences, the plan was perhaps emblematic of where voting legislation is likely to go in the next few decades. As technological capabilities increase, society should look for more creative ways to securely and safely allow people to partake in the ultimate act of civic duty: voting. For now, New Jersey is expanding in-person early voting. What comes next is anyone’s guess.