Activist state

New Jersey lawmakers want state voting rights law

New Jersey lawmakers seek to pass a new set of voting protections as US Supreme Court weighs case that could see key provisions of the Voting Rights Act gutted.

The invoice would give the state’s Civil Rights Division supervisory powers over elections that impede the ability of people who belong to a protected class – defined here as members of a minority group of race, color, or language – to influencing an election or electing candidates of their choice.

“I just think it’s really important to people in general,” said Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic), one of the bill’s main Assembly sponsors. “Voting should be a right for all.”

Dubbed New Jersey’s John Lewis Voting Rights Act – after the congressman and civil rights activist who died in July 2020 – the measure would also give state courts sweeping powers to change election rules and dates. if they find that the existing rules violate its provisions.

In such cases, the bill would grant courts the power to redraw electoral districts, increase the size of a given governing body, time elections to coincide with higher turnout primaries and general elections. , and to require additional polling stations and voting hours, among other things.

It would also create state-level preclearance rules that could require localities that violate state voting rights law to seek approval from the Civil Rights Division or a state court. before changing any part of their electoral process.

“It’s something we can’t do now. We have to step in after the fact and prosecute,” said Philip Hensley, Democratic Policy Analyst for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. “The door to court is barred for many plaintiffs under the current federal VRA. This new state VRA would allow us to pursue these lawsuits and defend voting rights.

Federal preclearance provisions were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.

The state-level voting rights law would also require ballots to be printed in more languages. While most counties in New Jersey are already required to print ballots in English and Spanish under a provision of federal law, few counties print ballots in other languages.

Federal Voting Rights Law requires election officials to begin providing ballots in a language if 5% or more of their voting-age citizens speak that language and have limited English proficiency. Bergen County prints ballots in Korean under this rule.

The state’s proposal would lower that threshold to 2% and more than 300 people. It would also require bilingual ballots if more than 4,000 citizens of voting age in a given political subdivision speak the same language and have limited English proficiency.

“New Jersey obviously has incredible linguistic diversity, so linguistic accessibility is a big thing that we can do better on,” Hensley said.

New Jersey case law separately requires that bilingual ballots be printed in electoral districts where at least 10% of registered voters speak Spanish as their primary language.

Hensley added that the bill should contain funds to prevent language provisions from burdening local governments.

The lack of funding could cause law problems with the Council on Local Warrants, which in 2019 struck down a state law requiring counties to continue mailing mail-in ballots to voters who had them. asked for one in a previous election, judging it to be an unfunded term. (This law has been re-enacted, with the new version including a credit.)

Wimberly said the Office of Legislative Services is analyzing funding levels, but added it’s too early to assess the cost of the bill.

Federal Headwinds

The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down parts of the federal Voting Rights Act twice since 2013, and it heard arguments Tuesday on a section of the law that prohibits voting rules that discriminate against residents in because of their race.

This case stems from a challenge to Alabama’s congressional districts drawn after the 2020 census.

In January, a federal appeals committee unanimously ruled that the state’s new map was illegal, finding that the state had improperly grouped black voters into a single district, leaving them with influence over just one of the state House seats despite representing 27% of Alabama’s population.

But the US Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, blocked a lower court order requiring Alabama to draw a new map for this year’s election, and its conservative majority could see federal voting protections further eroded.

“I think the upcoming elections in Georgia and some of these major elections, you’re going to hear stories of people’s voting nightmares,” Wimberly said. “We want to make sure that’s not the case here in New Jersey.”

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