Common Cause Backs Student Suit to Force Election Day Registration

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  • Scott Swenson, Dale Eisman
New Jersey Case Has National Implications for Voting Rights

In a case with nationwide implications for the right to vote, Common Cause today filed a brief in support of a case asking a New Jersey appeals court to order the state to begin allowing citizens to register to vote or update their registration on the same day they cast their ballots.

The non-partisan citizen advocacy organization argues in a “friend of the court” brief that a computerized statewide voter registration system now in place allows election officials to verify instantly the eligibility of new voters.  That removes any legal justification for the current 21-day waiting period between the close of registration and the election, the brief contends.

“Election Day Registration is available in over a dozen states across the country.  As President Obama reminded us last week in his State of the Union address, we need to modernize elections for the way we live now,” said Yael Bromberg, a Common Cause legal associate and co-author of the brief.  “It’s time for voting systems to catch up with the 21st Century, and Election Day Registration is a part of that call.”

The case, Rutgers University Student Assembly et al., v. Middlesex County Board of Elections et al. is pending in the appellate division of the New Jersey Superior Court, the Garden State’s second highest tribunal.  The case is brought on behalf of individual Rutgers students and several statewide organizations.

The Common Cause brief reviews the experience of three states – California, Connecticut and Colorado – in using registration systems similar to New Jersey’s to implement Election Day Registration. The systems are able to access other state records to verify each prospective voter’s eligibility and then process the voter’s registration form to add him or her to the rolls “at lightning speed,” the brief asserts.

“It is undisputed that New Jersey’s computerized registration system is fast, efficient, and provides ample safeguards against voter fraud,” said Paul Weissman at Lowenstein Sandler LLP, co-counsel on the brief.  “Now that this technology is in place, we believe New Jersey’s constitution requires the state to move promptly to eliminate the requirement for advance registration, which only reduces turnout, and to allow qualified voters to both register and vote on Election Day.”

While state court rulings are binding only in the state involved, Bromberg said a decision in favor of the Rutgers students who filed the suit would set an important precedent. “This is the first case in the nation in which a court has been asked to decide whether an advance registration requirement remains constitutionally permissible after a state has created and begun to use a fully functioning statewide voter registration system that is easily accessible to registrars.  We know that each state’s Supreme Court routinely weighs the decisions of its counterparts as it hears cases where its own state law is unsettled. Against that backdrop, a decision for the Rutgers students could reverberate across the country, potentially making the ballot box more accessible to millions of people.”

“New Jersey has purchased and installed a 21st century registration and voting system, but the state’s leaders are running it on a 19th century mindset,” said Common Cause President Miles Rapoport. “Election Day registration is a common sense step to strengthen our democracy. Common Cause urges Gov. Christie and the legislature to set an example for the nation and implement it immediately. The state shouldn’t need a court order to force it to do the right thing.”