NJ Motor Vehicle Offices Now Auto-Register New Voters

State Residents May Opt Out If Prefer
Nov 06, 2018

A very irate LBI woman called The SandPaper last week with a complaint.

She had just renewed her driver’s license and was asked if she was a registered voter. Yes, she was, said the woman, who didn’t want her name to appear in this story. No problem there.

But when she completed the process she was given a tablet to sign. It had several questions including things such as, “Are you a U.S. citizen?” And the one that set her off: “Are you a registered voter?” and, especially, “Are you a Republican, Democrat or ‘other’?”

It wasn’t just a seeming intrusion on privacy that angered the woman. She also thought it was ridiculous that the “other” category was included in the voter registration questions. “There’s only two parties in this country, and there always have been: the Republicans and the Democrats.”

Well, actually she was wrong. And actually the folks at the MVC (Motor Vehicle Commission, the official name for what used to be the DMV, Department of Motor Vehicles) were trying to be helpful, not prying.

New Jersey has allowed people to register to vote while obtaining or renewing their driver’s licenses or non-driver IDs since 1995. But citizens had to opt into registering. In April, Gov. Phil Murphy signed Democrat-supported but Republican-opposed legislation that automatically registers folks obtaining or renewing a license or an ID, an examination permit or a probationary driver’s license – unless they specifically request to opt out. The law took effect Nov. 1.

The woman in question visited an MVC office before November. But employees were already upping their game in anticipation of the new law taking effect.

Again, what upset the woman wasn’t voter registration but being asked what party to which she belonged. But MVC employees can now register voters and also ask if they have a party declaration. That isn’t a matter of being nosy but instead is very important. Unless a voter has declared a party affiliation, he or she cannot vote in New Jersey’s June primary election, which is open only to members of the Republican or Democratic parties.

Although state and county voting officials oversee primary elections, those primaries aren’t actually elections but rather selection of party nominees. As many poll workers can attest, just about every New Jersey primary election during a presidential election year results in angry voters who insist they are having their voting rights taken away from them, even though they haven’t declared a party affiliation.

If that seems simple enough to explain, well, sometimes the explanation doesn’t break through the anger – even to the point that police have to be called to escort an irate person out of the polling place.

When the matter was explained to the woman who called The SandPaper, she quickly calmed down and said thanks for the explanation.

That woman, by the way, was also mistaken about the “other” line on the MVC questionnaire.

There are other political parties in the U.S. and New Jersey. Some of the most well known are the Libertarian Party, the Green Party and the Constitution Party, which often field candidates for major state or federal office. But in New Jersey, those other political organizations don’t have primaries but rather party conventions to nominate their candidates.

So the “other” line makes perfect sense for members of those parties, as it also does for unaffiliated independent voters. Just remember, once you check “other,” you will not be allowed to vote in primary elections.

By the way, perhaps a new major political party will emerge in the United States. With the GOP and Democrats seemingly going more and more to the right and left wing corners, the political ring may have room for a moderate, in-the-middle party. There have, after all, been quite a few large political parties in American history that no longer exist: the Federalists, the Democratic-Republicans, the Whigs, the American Party (also known as the “Know Nothings”) and the Anti-Masonic Party. And we’re not just talking old history.

The Reform Party, founded in 1995 by presidential candidate Ross Perot, won 8.4 percent of the popular vote for president in 1996. It is still in existence although its former presidential candidates, including Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader, haven’t managed to garner more than one percent of the vote since Perot left the political stage.

New Jersey’s new law also will also allow automatic registration of new voters at the offices of other state agencies as well, including the Office of Disability Services; the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Woman, Infants and Children; and another dozen or so that collect enough data to register someone. Those agencies, unlike the MVC, have a choice whether or not to participate in the program.

The Nov. 1 law had passed the Assembly by a 50-23, mainly partisan, vote. In the Senate, the vote was 24-13, with lawmakers again mostly divided along party lines. Former Republican Gov. Chris Christie had vetoed similar legislation in the past.

Murphy and the Democrats wanted the legislation to become law in order to increase voter participation in elections. Republicans worried about voter fraud, especially if the Legislature and Murphy pass a law in the future that would allow undocumented immigrants to get drivers licenses.

New Jersey is the 12th state, along with the District of Columbia, to implement automatic registration at motor vehicle offices. Only Illinois, Rhode Island and Maryland include other state agencies as well.

By the way, people who were automatically registered since Nov. 1 were not eligible to vote in Tuesday’s election. New Jersey law requires persons to register at least 21 days before any election they intend to vote in.

— Rick Mellerup


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