Months after a divisive presidential election pushed voting rights to the fore, the issue has become a key political battlefield.
Bills restricting ballot access are moving quickly in Republican-led states even as President Biden and his fellow Democrats in Washington press for passage of the most ambitious voting rights legislation in decades to help blunt their effect.
In New Jersey, the Democratic governor, Philip D. Murphy, is about to sign a bill authorizing early in-person voting, sending a clear signal that making it easier to vote is crucial for a healthy democracy.
It will be done in a ceremony laden with symbolism: Mr. Murphy will be joined on Tuesday in a videoconference by Stacey Abrams, whose decade-long effort to enroll voters in Georgia helped cement the Democrats’ slim majority in the United States Senate, handing Mr. Biden an important victory.
New Jersey lawmakers’ final approval of two bills that expand voter access were not surprising in a state where Democrats control the State House and Democratic voters outnumber Republican voters by more than one million. And the practice of early in-person voting is hardly novel: New Jersey will become the 25th state to allow voters to cast ballots in person before elections for a period that includes a weekend day.
But Thursday’s final votes came on the same day that Georgia became the first major battleground state to restrict voting access since the tumultuous 2020 presidential contest, adopting a law that added voter identification requirements for absentee voting, limited drop boxes and expanded the Legislature’s power over elections. Republicans have already passed a similar law in Iowa, and are moving forward with efforts to limit voting in states including Arizona, Florida and Texas.
Mr. Biden, criticizing voting restrictions that appear designed to appease a conservative base still outraged by the results of the presidential election, said that Georgia’s new law makes “Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle.”
“What an ironic moment,” said New Jersey Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, a Democrat who was a prime sponsor of the early-voting legislation. “While New Jersey is doing one thing, Georgia is doing the exact opposite.”
New Jersey’s legislation requires each of the state’s 21 counties to open three to seven polling places for machine voting in the days before an election. For the Nov. 2 contest, there would be nine days of early in-person voting, including two weekends, ending the Sunday before Election Day. The bill calls for fewer days of early voting before primaries.
“Our accountability over government, opportunities to better our lives and the chance to elect our representatives all depend upon our ability to access the ballot,” said Senator Nia Gill, a Democrat who represents parts of Essex and Passaic Counties and was a sponsor of the bill.
Separate legislation that was also approved on Thursday calls for drop boxes for paper vote-by-mail ballots to be spaced out more evenly throughout counties, ensuring that there are access points closer to residential neighborhoods.
“Across our nation, there is a concerted effort to limit access to the ballot box among eligible voters,” Mr. Murphy said in a statement. “Those efforts are un-American and fly in the face of the principles that generations of Americans, from soldiers to civil rights activists, have fought for and in many cases given their lives to defend.”
Some county elections leaders, while supportive of the intent of the early-voting bill, had urged lawmakers to delay implementation until after November’s election, when the governor and all members of the Legislature are up for re-election. The bill will require most counties to purchase new voting machines and electronic poll books, and could cost upward of $50 million.
Some New Jersey Republicans objected to the cost and the timeline for implementing the legislation, which cleared the Assembly earlier this month and passed in the Senate on Thursday, 28 to 8, largely along party lines.
Senator Kristin M. Corrado, a Republican and a former county clerk who managed elections in Passaic County for more than seven years, said she supported early in-person voting. But, she said, she voted against the measure mainly out of concern that there would not be enough time before Election Day to update the voter rolls, purchase new machines and sync them to new electronic poll books.
“I hope we’re not setting everyone up for failure, but we’re just not there,” she said. “We don’t have the machines. We don’t have the poll books. We don’t have the workers.”
Senator Declan O’Scanlon Jr., a Republican who represents much of the Jersey Shore, said he opposed the bill for similar reasons.
“Like many things we do in Trenton, we’re doing it incompetently,” he said. “It’s impossible to do it instantly, yet we make no allowance in the bill for any delay.”
Still, supporters of expanding voting rights said they were hopeful that county election officials could successfully complete the necessary preparations in seven months.
“We applaud the Legislature’s commitment to removing obstacles to the ballot in recognition of the simple truth that our democracy is better when all voices can participate,” Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, said in a statement.
Henal Patel, a director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, a nonprofit that advocates racial and social justice, said the inclusion of voting on two Sundays would encourage more nonwhite churchgoers to cast ballots as part of a nationwide tradition known as “souls to the polls.”
“Early in-person voting encourages participation by more people, increases satisfaction, and results in shorter lines on Election Day,” Ms. Patel said in a statement.
During the pandemic, voting in New Jersey has occurred primarily with vote-by-mail ballots. Last fall, every registered voter in the state was sent a paper ballot, which could be mailed back or delivered by hand to drop boxes or election offices, resulting in record-setting voter turnout in November.
Under the new legislation, drop boxes would be positioned farther apart and efforts would be made to include more in poor communities.
“Passing legislation for early voting and allowing more equitable drop-box placement will expand our democracy for New Jersey’s Black voters, who have historically faced obstacles to the ballot,” Richard T. Smith, president of the state chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., said in a statement.
Ms. Abrams, the former minority leader of the Georgia Statehouse, spent a decade building a Democratic political infrastructure in the state, first with her New Georgia Project and then with Fair Fight, the voting rights organization she founded after losing a campaign for governor in 2018.
Her efforts contributed to January’s election of two Democratic U.S. senators in Georgia, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, swinging the balance of power in the Senate back to the Democrats.
Mr. Zwicker, who represents parts of several counties near Princeton, said he was excited by Ms. Abrams’s expected participation in Tuesday’s bill signing.
“If there’s anything good about doing things online, it’s that you can do things like this,” he said. “Talk about a single person changing the course of our country’s history with the work she did in Georgia. I’ll be thrilled to be within the same electrons as her.”
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