The Star-Ledger

N.J. Appeals Panel Revives Challenge To State's 21-Day Advance Voter Registration

The Star-Ledger — Wednesday, November 19, 2014

By Christopher Baxter | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

TRENTON — A state appeals panel today revived a lawsuit challenging New Jersey's requirement that residents must register to vote no later than 21 days before an election, finding ample evidence suggesting the mandate may no longer be needed or constitutional.

The challenge, filed in 2011 against the Middlesex County Board of Elections and the commissioner of registrations by several Rutgers University students and statewide advocacy groups, contended the requirement "severely burdens the right to vote" of New Jersey residents.

They argued that burden outweighed any interest the county, and by extension, all counties and the state, had in maintaining the advance registration requirement, which was established in order to prevent voter fraud and ensure public confidence in the system.

A state Superior Court judge in December dismissed the complaint, finding the burden to register to vote to be minimal.

But the three-judge appeals panel today reversed the decision and remanded the case to the lower court, finding the judge failed to consider evidence that a harm, even if minimal, may still outweigh the basis for the law given it may no longer be needed to prevent voter fraud.

The challenge stemmed from a dispute in which some of the students claimed they had registered to vote at least 21 days prior to an election, but when they arrived at their polling place, their names were not in the poll book. Three submitted provisional ballots, which were later deemed to be invalid. The fourth was not permitted to vote by provisional ballot.

The students then sued alongside a number of advocacy groups, including the Rutgers University Student Assembly, Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, New Jersey Citizen Action and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

In its decision, the appellate panel noted that over time, paper election records have been replaced by a computerized "statewide voter registration system," or SVRS, which allows local election officials to easily upload and verify a voter's identity.

"Thus, election officials are able to determine whether an individual is registered anywhere in the State, and have access to that person's voting history," Judge Michael Haas wrote for the panel. "New Jersey's SVRS specifically protects against ineligible ballots being cast in elections."

The defendants, represented by the state Attorney General's Office, said during the lower court proceedings that the computer system was "second to none" and they were only aware of two instances of voter fraud in the past eight years. Both of those involved people who voted from their business address, and were not cases of voter impersonation.

The appellate decision also noted the defendants agreed the system had the capability to be altered to accommodate a voter registration deadline different from the 21-day requirement.

"Nevertheless, defendants argued that, because the burden of registering twenty-one days in advance of an election was minimal, plaintiffs' constitutional claim lacked merit," Haas wrote.

But the panel said the lower court judge failed to consider "reams of evidence, including certifications, reports, and deposition transcripts" in support of their contention that the SVRS system had eliminated voter fraud as a concern. It also said the county failed to present any evidence supporting its contention the law continued to be needed to prevent fraud.

"The judge did not address any of the evidence plaintiffs presented on this issue and, instead, simply found that because college students are familiar with the need to meet deadlines for registering for classes, it was not onerous to require them to meet similar deadlines to register to vote before an election," Haas wrote for the panel.

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