In N.J., fighting for women's right to vote

Aug. 18 marks the 95th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It took the women’s rights movement 70 years to prevail, but it almost didn’t. In Tennessee, 24-year-old state Rep. Harry Burn had planned to vote against the amendment until he was persuaded otherwise by a note from his mother. “I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow,” he said later.

Despite that hard-won victory, too many women still lack full access to the ballot box because of outdated voting rules that don’t take into account modern lives, families, or technology. In New Jersey, narrow windows and high barriers to voter participation fall especially hard on women who must balance one or more jobs with family responsibilities.

New Jersey’s voter participation rates are at record lows. Our state ranks 39th in the nation for voter participation, and a staggering 1.6 million qualified New Jerseyans aren’t registered to vote.

This can change. New Jersey can lead the fight for voting rights. In June the state legislature passed the Democracy Act, which would bring our state’s voting laws into the 21st century with commonsense reforms that have been proven to increase voter turnout in other states.

The Democracy Act would institute in-person early voting, giving women who work and/or care for their children and families more flexible access to the polls, including on weekends.

In addition, the act would implement automatic voter registration in New Jersey. Any time qualified voters went to the motor vehicle commission to apply for or renew a driver’s license, they would be automatically registered to vote. This provision would make it less likely that voters are disenfranchised due to registration errors and reduce a barrier to participating in our democracy.

Oregon has already blazed a trail on automatic 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. Importantly, online voter registration states report a significant savings in per-registration costs.

Though the Democracy Act would expand voting rights for hundreds of thousands of women and make our voting rules fairer and more efficient, Gov. Christie’s public statements on the bill have been disappointing. He should be aware that none of the act’s provisions are likely to increase voter fraud and many would increase the accuracy of our voting rolls.

Nearly a century ago, Harry Burn’s mother changed the course of history and helped secure the right to vote for millions of women. Now New Jersey women should implore Christie to follow Burn’s example and sign a law that would benefit voters and our democracy.

Analilia Mejia is executive director of New Jersey Working Families (www.workingfamilies.org/states/new-jersey). amejia@workingfamilies.org
Nancy Hedinger is president of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey (www.lwvnj.org). Hedingern@gmail.com