Civics 101: Voting

The following blog post was written by Vishali Gandhi, LWVNJ summer intern.

The United States was founded upon principles of democratic government and freedoms, among them the right to vote for representatives in government. However, voting was not always universal. Voting rights were initially reserved for only white, property-owning males, but as the country grew and progressed, suffrage (the right to vote) expanded to include non-land owners, people of color, and women. While requirements to register differ according to state, in order to vote in New Jersey you must be a citizen of the U.S., 18 years of age by the time of the election, a resident of NJ for at least 30 days prior to the election, and you cannot be serving time in jail or on probation or parole for a felony.

In order to register to vote, you must complete a Voter Application form and either mail it or hand it in to either the Commissioner of Registration or Superintendent of EVotelections, depending on your county. You can check to see if you are registered and where you are registered through the Division of Elections website, or by calling your county’s Commissioner of Registration or Superintendent of Elections. You must register to vote at least 21 days before the date of the election in order to participate in that election.

General elections, including elections for the President, Governor, members of Congress, state legislators, and some county and municipal officials, are scheduled for the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November during a year in which an election is due. Primary elections, during which parties nominate a candidate to run during the general election, are held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in June. New Jersey has closed primary elections, meaning that only voters who have registered with a party may vote in that party’s primary election (party affiliation can be declared when initially registering to vote on the Voter Registration form or can be declared or changed by filling out a Party Affiliation Change form). Municipal elections are generally held with the General Elections. However, some municipalities hold nonpartisan elections (in which officials do not affiliate with a particular party) on the second Tuesday in May.

The process of voting is relatively simple: once you enter the voting booth, you will see a screen on which there are options for each position that must be filled (you will receive a sample ballot in the mail before the election so you can familiarize yourself with the layout of the ballot beforehand). Before submitting your ballot with your choices, you can change your decision as many times as you like. Once the ballot has been submitted, however, it is final and cannot be changed. If you have any questions or concerns, poll workers are available to aid in the process.

VP of Advocacy Nancy Hedinger answers voter questions through hotline

LWVNJ VP of Advocacy Nancy Hedinger answers voter questions

In addition, you can call the League of Women Voters of NJ at 1-800-792-VOTE (8683) or contact@lwvnj.org with any questions, concerns, or comments. Lines at polling places are known to get very long, especially during particularly important elections such as general elections for the Governor or President. By law, if you are in line at your polling place when the polls close, you have a right to vote. In New Jersey, polls are open from 6:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m.

If there is trouble with your registration, you may be asked to fill out a provisional ballot. A provisional ballot is a paper ballot that is administered in the following cases:

  • If your registration information is missing or is not complete in the poll book
  • If you moved from your registered address to another one in the same county and did not re-register at your new address
  • If you are a first-time voter and when you registered to vote you did not provide proper identification or the information you provided could not be verified and you did not bring your ID on Election Day (for your provisional ballot to be counted, you have until the close of business on the second day after the election to provide your county elections officials with the required ID information)
  • If you requested a vote-by-mail ballot but you never received it

Provisional ballots are counted only after they have been verified by the county’s Board of Elections.

Voting is a fundamental right and is vital for sustaining a democratic system, so it is very important to be aware of your rights when you go to vote. For first-time voters, familiarizing yourself with the ballot as well as knowing what to expect can be very helpful. The League of Women Voters of New Jersey has a wealth of information on voting rights, important dates and upcoming events, as well as a comprehensive “Frequently Asked Questions” page to help keep you informed.

Civics 101: How a Bill Becomes a Law

The following blog post was written by Vishali Gandhi, LWVNJ summer intern.

The United States government, both at the federal and state level, is divided into three distinct and separate branches: the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary. The legislature passes laws, the executive enforces them, and the judiciary resolves disputes with the law. The legislative branch is comprised of the U.S. Congress on the federal level and the N.J. State Legislature on the state level. Both bodies are bicameral, meaning that they are split into two “houses”. Congress is divided into the House of Representatives and the Senate and the N.J. legislature is divided into the General Assembly and the Senate. They are similar in structure and they have almost identical procedures for passing bills.

The legislative process can be incredibly daunting, to say the least. The passage of each bill is a laborious (and often long) process that starts with the conception of an idea and can end in either passage and enactment  or failure.

Rally in front of NJ State House

The first step in the process is the introduction of a bill onto the floor of the legislature. Bills can only be introduced by members of the legislature; however bills can often be inspired by concerns from constituents or interest groups (so contact your representative!). Once the bill has been drafted, it is assigned a name, which is read aloud on the floor of the legislature (this is referred to as the “first reading”). The member who introduced the bill is called the “sponsor”; if there are multiple members introducing and working on the bill, they are called the “co-sponsors”. Bills can be introduced in either house, both at the state and federal levels (except for federal money bills, which must originate in the U.S. House of Representatives).

After the bill has been introduced, it is sent to the appropriate committee for consideration. Congress and the N.J. Legislature each have their own sets of committees in both houses, each which deals with a particular area of legislation. A federal bill concerning the budget, for example, would be sent to the Ways and Means Committee in the House and the Appropriations Committee in the Senate. The committee considers the bill very carefully and often makes changes or amendments to bills (this process is called the “mark-up”). The committee can also decide to send the bill to a more specific subcommittee for further consideration and amendment. If the bill returns from the subcommittee, it can either be reported to the floor for a vote or it can be “tabled” (in effect, killing it).

New Jersey State House in Trenton

If the committee decides to report out the bill, it is put on the legislative calendar and is presented on the floor of the legislature once more (known as the second reading). At this time, any legislator can offer amendments to the bill and the floor is opened to debate. In the U.S. Senate, the bill can be filibustered, which involves delaying or stopping the passage of a bill by debating it for an extraordinarily long period of time (the record for the longest filibuster belongs to Senator Strom Thurmond who filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for over 24 hours). The only way to end a filibuster is to invoke cloture, which requires a three-fifths majority to vote in favor of ending the debate period. Once the debate has concluded and all amendments have been discussed and voted on, a third reading of the bill occurs.

After the third reading, the bill is put to a vote. The entire house votes on the passage of the bill, and if a simple majority (50% plus 1) votes in favor, the bill passes and moves on to the next step. The bill can also be sent back to committee for further consideration. This process is the same in both the federal and state legislatures.

If the bill passes, it is sent to the other house for consideration, where it may pass, fail, or be amended. After the process is complete in the second house, a conference committee, comprised of members from both houses, is formed to resolve any differences between the two bills. They must be approved in identical forms by both the houses in order to move out of either the Congress of the N.J. State Legislature.

Once the bill has undergone its final passage through both houses, it is sent to the desk of the president or governor. There are several things that can happen to the bill at this point: it can be signed by the president or governor, it can be vetoed (the governor has the power of the line-item veto, which allows him or her to remove any part of a  spending bill), or it can simply sit on his or her desk. If a bill sits on the governor’s desk for 45 days without any action, the bill automatically becomes law. If a bill sits on the president’s desk for 10 days (and if Congress is in session), the bill automatically becomes law. If the Congressional session ends during the 10 day period, the bill does not become law (this is called a pocket veto). If the bill is vetoed by either the president or the governor, the legislature can override it with a 2/3 vote; if there are not enough votes to override the veto, the bill is defeated. If the bill is signed (or the veto is overridden), it becomes law.

 

 

Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport

The following was written by Vishali Gandhi, LWVNJ summer intern.

On June 12th, the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, in conjunction with several other groups, participated in a lobbying effort to promote the passage of Assembly bill 2108. A2108 would ban the treatment, disposal, processing, or discharge of fracking waste in our state (read the full text of the bill here). This effort involved directly lobbying specific members of the New Jersey Assembly to post the bill so that it could move from the committee to the floor of the legislature to be voted on. It also included a rally to raise awareness and show support for the speedy passage of the bill. This truly was the perfect opportunity as an intern and, more importantly, as an activist, because I was able to experience the democratic process first-hand, both inside and out.

The day began as I met with a number of supporters gathered outside the doors of a committee hearing in the statehouse. We were waiting for members of the Assembly to exit so that we could talk to them about A2108 and urge them to move the bill out of committee. As the hearing drew to a close, we began to speak with the members of the Assembly as they exited and I listened in as each person explained why the passage of this bill was important to them.

Despite having very busy schedules, they stayed and listened to what everyone had to say. Meeting with legislators face-to-face is a great way to get your voice heard. Elected representatives are more than happy to listen to concerns from constituents, and it is a very effective way to directly contact representatives.

Nancy Hedinger, LWVNJ VP of Advocacy, addresses the crowd

Nancy Hedinger, LWVNJ VP of Advocacy, addresses the crowd

After the committee hearing, we moved outside to the front of the State House where a sizable group was forming, all in favor of the swift passage of A2108. What I found really amazing as I looked at the crowd was its heterogeneity. There were a number of organizations present, all with different reasons for supporting the bill’s passage. There were mothers who were worried about the safety and health of their children, as well as student-powered environmental groups who believed strongly in the cause. Though the group itself was incredibly diverse, there was a singular passion that was common among everyone there. I was inspired to see that everyone had a shared goal of passing the bill and preventing disastrous ecological damage from taking place within New Jersey’s borders (read more about hydrofracking waste here).

As I listened to calls-to-action from representatives of each of the groups, as well as members of the Assembly who were in support of the bill’s passage, I thought about the importance of political participation. A2108 has been introduced and passed through both houses of the NJ legislature for several years now, but every year, the bill is vetoed by Governor Chris Christie. Members of the legislature who support the bill then attempt to override the veto, but they have not been able to do so yet.

So the question then is: what effect does lobbying actually have? Why engage in these attempts to pass a bill that may just fail? The reason for engaging in political advocacy is raising awareness and making change. The efforts of all of the people who rallied to show support for the bill may not directly result in the passage of the bill, but by making people more aware of the issue, there is more pressure on legislators to post and pass the bill. In fact, a few weeks after the lobbying effort, and after a lot of pressure from activists across the state, Assembly bill 2108 was posted and passed both houses of the NJ legislature and is now awaiting the governor’s signature. This truly was a victory for the League and all of the activists who showed support and it is a testament to the positive effects of engagement.

Activist participating in rally

Activist participating in rally in front of the State House

When people think of civic engagement, often the first thing that comes to mind is voting. While voting is undeniably an important part of civic engagement, struggle to create change and make progress; holding those representatives accountable for their actions and mistakes is the other part.

Getting involved in the political process does not necessarily mean attending every committee hearing and participating in every rally, but instead being aware of the issues and being a part of the process in whatever way you can. A good first step is to join the League of Women Voters so that you can stay up-to-date with issues affecting New Jersey citizens. The League organizes many events during the year that can help you get involved and learn more about issues that are important to you. The League’s website also has a wealth of information on different issues and events.

The New Jersey legislature’s website is another helpful resource. On it, you can find all of the bills that are being considered by the legislature, as well as previous bills. You can also find your representatives and see how they have voted on different bills. If there is an issue or a specific bill that is important to you, a great way to get your voice heard is to contact your local representative’s office by phone, email, or by mail. You can also go and sit in on a committee hearing to find out more about a bill. Schedules for committee hearings, which are open to the public, can be found here.

Conclusion: Women’s History Month, Intersectionality, and Ella Baker

All month long, I’ve had the opportunity to highlight female leaders throughout history and sectors of society. I’ve written full posts about Anna Howard Shaw, Christie Whitman, Sonia Sotomayor, and Eleanor Roosevelt. I’ve called to memory New Jersey-specific pioneers: Molly Pitcher, Marie Hilson Katzenbach, and Alice Paul; while also commemorating the efforts of national and international leaders: Sheryl WuDunn, Coretta Scott King, Michelle Obama, Carrie Chapman Catt, Sally Ride, and Dorothy Irene Height. I’ve had the chance to reflect on some of my favorite fictional female characters from books, movies, and TV: Leslie Knope, Hermione Granger, Elizabeth Bennet, and CJ Cregg.

It has been an inspiring journey, especially prescient for me personally, as I prepare to complete my Master’s Degree this May and enter the world of politics, nonprofits, and advocacy. I am truly standing on the shoulders of giants, and I owe a great deal of gratitude to all of the women I have highlighted this month.

While each woman’s story represents a unique thread of the broader tale of women’s advancement and quest for true equality, I’ve come to realize one major central theme among them all: being a woman is only one aspect of the identity of each of these women. It is only one piece of what drove them to greatness. Identity is a tricky thing, wrought with complex layers and changing constantly as contexts change.

Many of these women faced more than “just” a gender barrier. They were racial or ethnic minorities, LGBT, students, came from a different background or geographic region, or in a field not very receptive to those outside a particular mold. In academia, we call these varying identities “intersectionality,” and I think intersectionality defines the face of feminism today and the future of where it will go.

And so, I offer as my last blog post of Women’s History Month, a truly intersectional figure: Ella Baker. Born in 1903, Ella Baker’s grandmother was a slave. Baker was smart and hard working, graduating as valedictorian of her class from Shaw University in North Carolina in 1927. From there, she moved to New York City and got involved with civic associations focused on advancing the social and economic status of African Americans and women (Are you keeping track? Baker represents women, African Americans, members of the GI Generation, and first generation college students, so far)

In 1957, Baker was tapped by MLK to help organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where she stayed for three years before leaving in 1960 to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She believed in the power of educated young people to create social change, and the NSCC attempted to tap their collective power to tackle the issues of the day.

Like the League of Women Voters, Baker believed in the power of voting and that true freedom cannot be achieved without both voting rights and voter participation. She believed in servant leadership and shared leadership, and the need for an organization’s capacity to be strong enough to survive its first transfer of power, proving that it is sustainable even when the first strong leader abdicates. She was a facilitator and a work horse, often behind-the-scenes, so that the end result of her work could be strong and impactful. After all, community organizing requires organization. These beliefs allowed her to leave a strong institutional legacy. It was also these beliefs that contributed to her nickname: “Fundi,” which is Swahili for “a person who teaches a craft to a younger generation.” (The Child Defense Fund even has the Ella Baker trainers program built around her ideals and work ethic!)

Ella Baker died on her 83rd birthday in 1986. While she wasn’t necessarily the flashiest, big-name, in-front-of-the-cameras figure, she was a major force in the Civil Rights movement practically from its inception. She lived through a period of rapid transformation of the social and political fabric of our nation, and she was at the center of it all, bringing with her all the aspects of her identity. Ella Baker is the perfect capstone to this Women’s History Month series, and we thank her today.

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(sources: http://ellabakercenter.org/about/who-was-ella-baker, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marian-wright-edelman/ella-baker-my-civil-right_b_5052112.html)

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Modern First Lady

No list of famous or influential women would be complete without an homage to Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt was a remarkable woman who led a remarkable life. Born in 1884, Eleanor was educated in Europe and returned to America to be a debutante. She married her fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1905; at the wedding, she was given away by then-President Theodore Roosevelt. She had six children before FDR came down with polio in 1920, and she tended to him while he recovered and encouraged him to pursue his political ambitions despite his illness. It was during this time that she began her own political involvement, joining the League of Women Voters, serving as Vice President of Legislative Affairs!

FDR was inaugurated in 1933, and while he conducted a landmark Presidency, Eleanor transformed the role of First Lady. She became a visible public figure, travelling the country and writing a daily syndicated newspaper column. For the first time, the First Lady held her own press conference. In true Eleanor Roosevelt style, she only allowed female reporters to attend. As First Lady, she was actively involved in New Deal efforts, travelling to work sites and living locations for the relief efforts. She became a fierce advocate for the poor and disadvantaged.

After her husband’s death and a brief recusal from public life, Eleanor was appointed by President Truman to the US delegation to the United Nations. There, she served on the Human Rights Commission and helped author the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR was adopted and is still used regularly in international law today. Eleanor developed a strong relationship with President Kennedy, who reappointed her to the UN. He also appointed her to the National Advisory Committee of the Peace Corps and as Chair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women.

Eleanor Roosevelt remained active in public life and humanitarian causes until shortly before her death in 1962.

Many tout the Kennedy Administration for transforming the Presidency, turning the office into a public affair with images of the First Family living an “ordinary” life in the White House. I contend, however, that this change could not have happened if Eleanor Roosevelt had not first transformed the office of the First Lady. She was not only an ardent supporter of the work her husband did, but also conducted herself independently as First Lady, championing her own causes and performing her own citizen outreach. Since Eleanor Roosevelt took on the causes of the poor, disadvantaged, and human rights, First Ladies Nancy Reagan took on drug abuse, Hillary Clinton took on health care, and Michelle Obama is promoting healthy nutrition and exercise choices for children and families.

We have much to thank Eleanor Roosevelt for, and today we honor her. May we all attempt to live out her legacy; after all, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”!

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From the South Bronx to the Highest Court: Justice Sonia Sotomayor

ImageAny assessment of the historical makeup of the Supreme Court sends a clear message: the only people qualified to ascertain the true nature of American law are old, white men. The nine-member court only admitted a woman (Sandra Day O’Connor) to its ranks in 1981, well behind the tide of the wave of feminism that had been sweeping the nation since the 1960’s. Sure, the Court is meant to be isolated, austere, and unswayable, but accepting diversity isn’t a trend and shouldn’t be treated as such. It wasn’t until the nineties that the Court saw two women serving concurrently, with the appointment of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But then O’Connor retired and we were back to one—that is, until Sonia Sotomayor came along.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was nominated by President Obama in 2009, and ultimately was appointed as the first Hispanic and only the third woman on the Supreme Court. Described by virtually all of her classmates  as exceptionally bright, Sotomayor was Valedictorian of her high school, a Pynes Award winner at our own PrincetonUniversity, and ultimately attended Yale Law.

Sonia Sotomayor was raised in a single-parent home in a South Bronx public housing project. Her parents met after her mother returned from the Women’s Army Corps in World War II, and her father died when Sonia was nine. The strongest figure in Sonia’s life was her mother, followed only by Nancy Drew, the crime fighting girl who starred in Sonia’s favorite book series. These women—real and fictional—were super important in forming her identity both as Latina and female, and she breached both the gender and ethnicity barriers in every phase of her career. (Career, by the way, is something she talks to Abby about on Sesame Street)

Prior to ascending to the bench, Sotomayor was a consistent advocate for the underprivileged and underrepresented while she worked in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and served on the New York State Mortgage Agency. In 1992, she was nominated to the Federal District Court by Governor Cuomo and President Bush. Six years later, she was nominated by President Clinton to sit on the Federal Court of Appeals, Second Circuit. During this phase of her career, Sotomayor developed a reputation as a tough judge and boss, but one who is also well integrated in the Bronx community.

When President Obama had to replace Justice Souter on the Supreme Court, he sought justices who not only were incredibly intelligent and have a strong understanding of the law, but also those with certain experiences— he considers Sotomayor’s identity as Latina and female as assets to her on the bench. Sonia Sotomayor celebrates her identity and is a radical departure from the old, white men wearing powdered wigs that we often think of when we think of the Supreme Court. Sonia Sotomayor is a trailblazer in more ways than one, and we thank her today.

My First Role Model: Christie Whitman

The following post is written by Megan Dunne, spring intern for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.

This is the second post in a series highlighting and celebrating female pioneers throughout history. Some of these women have been largely overlooked, others celebrated, but I feel that all of these inspiring women have made important contributions to the state of women today.

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Okay, so that’s a bit of a misnomer; my first role model was my mom. But right around when I was eight or nine years old, Governor Christie Whitman came to my elementary school and talked to us. This was the first moment I was aware of politics, and it’s pretty awesome that my first association of politics was with a woman. I often think back to the impression Whitman had on me, especially now as I am on the precipice of completing my Master’s Degree in Political Science.

Why did I think she was the coolest? Well, she was. Christine Todd Whitman was elected New Jersey’s first female governor in 1993, also making her only the 13th female governor in US history. Not only did she win, but she beat an incumbent—a rare feat in politics. As governor, she appointed many women to important posts, including the first female Chief of Staff, the first female Attorney General, and the first female Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court. A Republican, Whitman cut income taxes, business taxes, and reduced the size of government. She was moderate on social issues and championed environmental causes.

Whitman won reelection but ultimately resigned in 2001 to serve as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. Currently, Whitman sits on a variety of nonprofit and corporate boards, started the Whitman Strategy Group, and was part of the initiative to bring the Super Bowl to New Jersey this year. She also wrote It’s My Party Too, a book supporting her vision of a Republican party that is fiscally conservative but socially tolerant.

All Christie Whitman had to do to inspire child-me was to show up at my school, smile, speak confidently, and hold the title “Governor.” I was a kid, I didn’t need to know anything about her policies or politics. I didn’t know what “Democrat” or “Republican” meant; come to think of it, I think I knew who Christie Whitman was before I knew who the President was.

The effect Governor Whitman had on me demonstrates the effect of female leadership: being there empowers others to aspire to be there. What I mean by this is that Christie Whitman taught me at a very young age that a woman can be whatever she wants. This woman was in charge of the entire state when my entire world was encompassed by my one-square-mile town.

I now know that my former idol and I would disagree on certain things if we ever were to meet again. But that doesn’t matter to me. She worked hard to ascend to where she did, and she brought along more strong women with her, paving the way for more women behind them all.

When I was a kid, I idolized Mia Hamm, Nala from The Lion King, and the Olsen twins. But I didn’t become a soccer player, an actress, or a lion (though it was a sad day when I realized that wasn’t possible). I went into politics, and in my job experience and my undergraduate and graduate courses, I’ve been surrounded by a healthy mix of men and women. So thank you, Christie Whitman, for pushing at that glass ceiling. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for you.

(Sources: http://governors.rutgers.edu/njgov/whitman/whitman_biography.php , http://www.christiewhitman.com/biography; Image Source: http://www.christiewhitman.com/biography)