By Shennell McCloud
Newark is New Jersey’s largest city, but it has among the lowest voter turnouts in the state. This under-representation, which is common among communities of color and low-income communities, undermines our democracy. Through voting reform and civic action, we must break down the barriers to voting.
Last year, the state passed a law that automatically renewed Vote By Mail ballots for those who voted by mail in 2016. The hope was that people who voted in a higher turnout presidential election would decide to also vote in the (typically lower-turnout) midterm election. The bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Adam Taliaferro, said “Allowing people to vote via mail for all elections can help boost voter turnout and get more people involved in the electoral process.”
The plan worked: 400,000 votes were cast by mail in 2018, the most of any election in state history.
Yet even with the surge in voter participation, only 38 percent of registered Newarkers voted, compared to over 53 percent statewide. In addition, just 8.8 percent of Newarkers voted by mail – which shows that even when our leaders turn good policy into law, we still need to do the hard work of making people aware of the change and how it can benefit their lives.
That’s why over the past two months, Project Ready, the nonprofit organization I lead, has signed up more than 1,000 Newarkers to vote by mail. Our hope is that by making voting easier, the people we sign up will not only vote in the coming election, but will vote in every election going forward.
But our Vote By Mail system is by no means the most progressive policy in the country. In Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, every voter receives a Vote By Mail ballot for each election. Studies have shown that allowing people to vote by mail, from the comfort of their own homes, is hands-down the best way to increase voter turnout. In fact, these three “Vote-at-home” states produced the highest turnout of all – 81 percent on average.
While Vote-at-home is the gold standard for voting reform, New Jersey has the opportunity to dramatically expand access to and lower barriers to voting through a package of expansive reforms being championed by Gov. Phil Murphy. These reforms include online voter registration, same-day voter registration, early voting up to 30 days before an election, and restoring voting rights to those on parole and probation.
Since our nation’s founding when only property-owning or tax-paying white men were granted the right to vote, generations of activists have fought to expand the franchise and reduce barriers to entry.
Voting reform has a disproportionate impact on communities of color and low-income communities like Newark, and there have always been those who will come up with reasons to preserve the status quo in order to protect their power.
But I urge our legislators to embrace the long tradition of reform and the promise of a more representative government and to ignore the voices of those who fear a more inclusive democracy.
As New Jerseyans, we must always make increasing voter turnout our north star. So as we fight for structural reforms to break down barriers to voting, my organization will continue its work to increase voter participation by registering more Newarkers to Vote by Mail.
As of right now, I can only dream of what our community would look like if 81 percent of my neighbors came out to vote. But I can tell you this: it would be a whole lot different than it is today.
Shennell McCloud is the Executive Director of Project Ready, an organization which seeks to engage more Newark, NJ families in decision-making. She is the mother of a two-year-old and one-year-old and lives with her husband in Newark.
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