In April 2016, Andrew Zwicker – then in his fourth month as a state assemblyman – had an idea. The legislature had recently passed a bill allowing 17-year-olds to register to vote early if they would turn 18 before Election Day. But why shouldn’t those same 17-year-olds be able to vote in primaries?
So Zwicker introduced a bill, his first in the state legislature: the “New Voter Empowerment Act.” Under the provisions of the bill, 17-year-old New Jersey residents who will turn 18 before the November general election would be allowed to vote in that year’s primary election, essentially giving them a headstart on engaging in the democratic process.
For a freshman legislator’s first-ever bill, it was a major success. Within three months, it had passed both houses of the legislature on bipartisan votes and headed to then-Gov. Chris Christie’s desk. But it went there and no further: Christie vetoed the bill, saying that it was “potentially unconstitutional” and could be subject to legal challenges.
Seven years later, Christie’s veto still stands; the bill has struggled to pass both houses of the legislature ever since, even with a Democratic governor in office. The Assembly passed it again in 2018, but the Senate didn’t take up the cause, leaving it to linger in purgatory.
Zwicker, now a state senator, hopes to change that this session. The Assembly State and Local Government Committee is scheduled to hear the bill tomorrow, and Zwicker said he’s working on getting it through his own chamber as well.
“I’m glad to see it moving in the Assembly, and I’m continuing to build up support for it in the Senate,” he told the New Jersey Globe. “I’m hopeful that we can get it moved before the end of the session.”
Asked what exactly had been the holdup these last few years, Zwicker had a simple answer: Covid.
“We spent a lot of time making sure that, during the pandemic, people had the ability to vote,” Zwicker said. “Working with election officials, clerks, et cetera – all of our focus was there. And now that we’re on the other side of that, we can go back and start looking at things like this. This is something that’s been on my list for a long time.”
The instinctive reaction to such a proposal, especially from conservatives, is that allowing 17-year-olds to vote is inherently unconstitutional. That was exactly what Christie said in his veto message seven years ago, writing that expanding the franchise to 17-year-olds was “legally questionable,” even if it only applied to primaries.
“The right to vote is an essential component of a democratic society and I fully encourage the participation of all eligible individuals in our election process,” he wrote. “I am, however, unwilling to sanction the expansion of that participation to include voting by individuals less than 18 years of age, and am concerned that this bill sets the state on a slippery path toward further erosion of critical and constitutional requirements for voter eligibility.”
Zwicker, however, argued that such concerns are bunk; while underage voting is prohibited in general elections, it isn’t necessarily in primaries, which as internal party processes don’t have to follow the same rules. The bill could be challenged in court, but Zwicker said he doubted its opponents would have a case.
If Zwicker can shepherd the bill through the full legislature this time around, he’s likely to be met by a friendlier face at the end. Gov. Phil Murphy has supported a number of significant voting reforms during his tenure, and would likely be inclined to sign Zwicker’s bill if it reached his desk.
Tyler Jones, a spokesperson for Murphy, said that the governor was supportive of Zwicker’s idea, though she declined to comment on the actual bill itself.
“Governor Murphy believes our democracy will grow stronger, better, and more representative when more New Jerseyans are able to exercise their right to vote,” Jones said. “The governor has long been supportive of expanding access to voting by allowing 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they turn 18 years old by the time of the general election.”
Even if the bill were to fly through the legislature at warp speed, it’s still far too late for it to be implemented for this year’s primary. Those who are still 17 as of June 6 will have to wait until November to cast their first votes.
But for current 16-year-olds, there’s still hope; should Zwicker get his way, the electorate in New Jersey’s 2024 primaries might be about to get a little bit younger.