The 2016 presidential election is still 17 months away, but the campaign already is in the silly season.
Several Republicans with White House aspirations took offense last week at suggestions by Democratic hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton that protecting and strengthening voting rights should be a top national priority.
On CBS's Face the Nation, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie rejected Clinton's singling out his voting rights record, calling her critique "ridiculous." In a speech at Texas Southern University last week, Clinton had called Christie to task for his veto in 2013 of "legislation to extend early voting" in New Jersey.
Despite the partisan cross-fire, in-person early voting is largely supported on both sides of the aisle in at least 20 state legislatures across the country, including consistently red states such as Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas.
In addition to the slew of state legislatures that have endorsed the measure by writing it into their laws, the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) recommended it last year as key to "limit congestion on Election Day and to respond to the demand for greater opportunities to vote beyond the traditional Election Day polling place."
However, Christie vetoed the measure in March 2013, explaining in his veto letter that New Jersey voters are already "able to vote early in person" through an "effective and reliable" method known as "vote by mail." That is only technically true.
New Jersey's policy critically differs from in-person early voting because it requires that a voter first submit a "Vote by Mail" application, either in person or by mail. The application takes a few days to be processed and once ready it is then typically mailed to the voter. The voter can then cast the mail-in ballot, by mail or in person.
It's great that no-excuse absentee voting exists in New Jersey, but the system there is not a replacement for actual in-person early voting. It requires an application step followed by a processing and mail-delivery period, which is more than the basic voter-registration and one-stop in-person early voting used elsewhere.
The PCEA report noted that "nearly a third of voters in the 2012 Election cast their ballot before Election Day, more than double the rate of the 2000 election. Of the more than 47 million Americans who cast ballots early in 2012, 29 million were cast by mail and 18.5 million early in-person."
Colorado, a swing state, provides a great model for comprehensive and convenient election administration. Common Cause cheered its approach in our "Did We Fix That?" report, an evaluation of the implementation of the PCEA's recommendations in 10 swing states. Specifically, Colorado allows for all-mail ballot delivery, voter registration, and in-person voting, before and through Election Day. Additionally, election officials in Colorado can track ballot movement through an online system -- another tool recommended by the PCEA.
Christie's argument against in-person early voting in New Jersey in 2013 rested on the one-time $25-million price tag associated with its administration. Proponents of the measure dismantled this argument, however, pointing to the state's $26-million splurge on a special election that took place just 20 days prior to the November 2013 election for governor and legislative seats. Critics argued that Christie vetoed a cost-saving bill for a unified election in order to avoid risking losing his reelection bid by sharing a ballot with then-Senator-elect Cory Booker (D).
Christie now argues that he opposes in-person early voting because it "increase[s] the opportunities for fraud." He offers no evidence to back that assertion, however, probably because there's none available. A comprehensive investigation recently found only 31 credible incidents of voter impersonation out of 1 billion ballots cast in the last 15 years, anywhere in the country. The mechanics of in-person early voting are similar to in-person Election Day voting. And technology in place, such as statewide voter registration systems mandated by the Help America Vote Act, allows for the seamless delivery of voter information.
Christie's recent attempt to link in-person early voting with voter fraud is curious since he opened New Jersey offices for in-person early voting on the Saturday and Sunday before Election Day in 2012, as the state was reeling from devastation caused by superstorm Sandy.
In a press briefing then, the governor encouraged voters to get out to vote early: "Time on your hands? Tired of cleaning stuff up? Go there in person, you'll get a ballot, you vote and hand it in and you're done." He explained, "There's no reason why anybody shouldn't vote. We're going to have a full, fair, transparent, open voting process."
While Christie faced criticism for other aspects of his handling of emergency election administration during the superstorm, namely the state's unilateral, illegal implementation of internet voting, which left New Jersey votes vulnerable to hacking, his implementation of in-person early voting should be applauded. And having seen how well it worked then, despite being in the midst of a natural disaster, the governor should embrace it for every election.
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Face the Nation Transcript:
DICKERSON: Hillary Clinton mentioned you and said you and other Republicans are trying to make it harder for people to vote. What is your reaction to that?
CHRISTIE: She doesn't know what she's talking about.
In New Jersey, we have early voting that are available to people. I don't want to expand it and increase the opportunities for fraud. Maybe that's what Mrs. Clinton wants to do. I don't know.
But the fact is that folks in New Jersey have plenty of an opportunity to vote. And maybe if she took some questions some places and learned some things, maybe she wouldn't make such ridiculous statements.
DICKERSON: She says it's fear-mongering, this idea that there's a lot of election fraud going on.
CHRISTIE: Yes. Well, she's never been to New Jersey, I guess.
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NOTE: This article was cross-posted on the Common Cause website, here.
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