Election Law Changes Play Out in Virginia and New Jersey
While many have already shifted their focus to the 2024 elections, in a handful of states, this year’s elections are underway. Millions of Americans are casting their ballots to elect new state legislators, governors, and secretaries of state; decide on statewide referendums; or even select a new state supreme court justice.
The 2023 elections will provide a window into how newly passed election policies – and their implementation – impact the election experience for both voters and election officials. In Virginia and New Jersey, more than six million registered voters in each state have an opportunity to participate in state legislative elections, and early voting has commenced.
Both Virginia and New Jersey are putting new election policies to the test. Here’s what to watch.
State Spotlight: Virginia
In Virginia, all 140 seats of the General Assembly are on the ballot, an election that will determine the political course of the state in the next several years. Voters and election officials will have to adapt to a number of changes.
One new policy will make the mail voting process less burdensome. H1948 removes the witness signature requirement for mail ballots. Instead, voters can include their birth year and the last four digits of their SSN on the ballot envelope. Voters that don’t have a social security number can use an assigned “unique identifier” instead.
Voting rights restoration, however, took a step back under Governor Youngkin, who rescinded a policy that automatically restored voting rights to returning citizens that had completed their prison terms. Instead, individual citizens now must complete an application to have their voting rights restored and each application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Not only did this rollback cause confusion for eligible voters, it also caused issues for election administration. Already this year, we saw 270 formerly incarcerated individuals erroneously removed from the Virginia rolls. These individuals had their rights restored and then subsequently violated the terms of their probation. Due to an error in the state’s computer system, the violations registered as new felonies, resulting in erroneous removal of these individuals from the voter rolls after early voting was already underway.
In bad news for election security and voter access, Virginia is also one of nine states that left the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) this year – a trusted, nonpartisan system across states used to maintain voter rolls and aid election officials in administering fair elections. Instead, Virginia has opted to sign individual agreements with a handful of neighboring states. The new process utilizes questionable data sources to keep voter lists up-to-date, which could potentially lead to eligible voters being wrongfully removed from the rolls.
Participation in ERIC can be the difference between accurate and inaccurate voter rolls, at a time when many state legislatures have adopted new voting policies in the name of election integrity. Georgia just found more than 400,000 outdated voter registrations thanks to ERIC. Meanwhile, in Ohio this August, a man was charged with two felony counts of voter fraud – which likely could have been caught earlier had the state not withdrawn from ERIC earlier this year.
State Spotlight: New Jersey
The New Jersey Legislature took major steps to improve voter access and elections infrastructure in 2022, with many policies in effect for their first general election this year.
In a convenient change for New Jersey voters, state legislators passed A3817, which created an online portal where voters can change their name, address, or party affiliation on their existing voting record. New laws A1969 and S138 allow qualified 16 and 17 year olds to work as poll workers.
Two bills will have a significant impact on ballot counting and voter list maintenance. A3822 allows counties to begin canvassing mail-in ballots five days before the election, rather than on Election Day. The bill also explicitly allows voters to update their party affiliation as part of the state’s automatic voter registration process at Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) offices.
A3823 requires more frequent updates of death records in the two months prior to an election to ensure that deceased voters are removed from rolls in a timely manner. It also allows remote training for certain election workers, and ensures that all election worker pay is exempt from state income tax and does not affect unemployment benefits.
Some new laws could also unfortunately have a negative impact on voter access in the Garden State. A3819 removes voters from New Jersey’s permanent mail-in voter list if they fail to vote by mail for four years in a row. A3820 removes the option for unaffiliated mail-in voters on the permanent absentee list to receive primary ballots for both parties and choose one to vote by mail. Instead, these voters will receive notice of how to affiliate with a party and how to vote in person.
Hundreds of new voting laws have been adopted by state legislatures over the last several years, and with the 2024 federal elections just around the corner, voter access and election security are top of mind for voters, election officials, and state legislators alike. The 2023 elections offer a preview into how new policies will impact turnout and the smooth administration of local elections – and in states like New Jersey and Virginia, both positive and negative policies are on trial for the first time.
The lessons learned this November can inform how we prepare and adjust ahead of 2024. In this era of heightened scrutiny over voting laws and election integrity, we owe it to the American people to ensure that everyone can participate in safe, secure, and accessible elections – regardless of the state or zip code they live in.