A voting age as low as 16. Paid time off on Election Day. Mandatory civics classes in high school and college. Terms limits for local officials.
A respected social advocacy group is recommending these and other sweeping changes in a new report addressing low voter turnout for elections in New Jersey.
In “Our Vote, Our Power: Lifting up Democracy’s Voices in the Garden State,” the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice identifies four barriers that keep people from exercising their franchise: lack of knowledge about how government works, registration challenges and the timing of elections, restrictions on who can vote and the perception that the system is not responsive to voters’ desires.
“People don’t really believe in the right to vote because people don’t trust that our elected officials believe in the right to vote,” said Henal Patel, author of the report and director of the institute’s Democracy and Justice Program.
The report’s findings are based on a combination of in-depth research and interviews with residents of Newark, where fewer than 5% of residents voted in the April 2018 school board election. According to the report, turnout in Newark was 49% for the 2016 presidential election, 40% for the 2018 Congressional midterms and 19% for the city’s municipal elections also held in the spring of 2018.
“Newark is the biggest city in the state of New Jersey, so it’s a good sense of what people are all around the state,” Patel said. “Instead of just guessing what the issue is, we asked people why their communities aren’t voting and the responses were fascinating.”
Part of the problem, Patel said, is a lack of knowledge among voters of how government works.
“We have federal governments, we have state governments, we have local governments, we have county governments, it’s complicated,” he said. “And if no one is teaching you, how are you learning this? We need to have actual comprehensive mandatory civics education in schools.”
Decisions about who can vote also work to limit turnout, Patel said, and among the institute’s recommendations are allowing incarcerated people to vote and lowering the voting age.
“The justification for 18 as the voting age is often competency or needing sufficient knowledge,” the report reads. “Indeed, there is no evidence that people over 18 are more competent or have more knowledge to vote. Sixteen-year-olds, on average, have similar civic knowledge as adults.”
The institute also recommends steps to eliminate “systemic barriers to voting,” calling for paid time off on election days, enhanced early voting opportunities and allowing people to register and vote on the same day.
The institute’s research also showed that some potential voters are dissuaded because they question whether their votes really count.
“Too many people decide not to vote because they believe that the system is not responsive to them and the winners seem predetermined,” according to the report.
Among the group’s suggested remedies is eliminating the “party line” on ballots, term limits for local officials and a full-time state Legislature to broaden the field of potential candidates.
“Let’s have a full-time Legislature that is paid a full-time wage,” Patel said. “Right now, the Legislature meets two times a week. But what jobs let you be in Trenton two days a week? So it really limits who can actually run.”
Statewide election figures show that turnout has been rising since the election of Donald Trump as president. New Jersey has expanded registration and vote-by-mail options.
Created in 1999, the Institute for Social Justice has a mission of creating “just, vibrant, and healthy urban communities.” Its board of trustees includes numerous luminaries, including former state Attorney General John Farmer and Paul Fishman, who once served as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey.