Your teachers in school might have told you that voting is both important and easy. Bumper stickers, tee-shirts, and other slogan-littered novelties will tell you to "just vote" or to register to vote. But voting might not be as easy as you were led to believe. In fact, voting in primary elections and other special elections can be somewhat complicated and if you do not understand the rules, then you risk being turned away on election day. To be fair to my eleventh grade history teacher, voting can be easy if done in the general election in November. The average voter is most familiar with the November election, but voters are also entitled to choose candidates for their own respective political parties in June (the Primary Election).
Primary Elections are sometimes ignored by voters as inconsequential and, dare I say - boring. But this year's primary is creating a media frenzy of coverage and warring posts for and against candidates on social media. Voters in both the Democratic and Republican parties seem to be very active in this year's Primary Election. For example, I watched a video the other day posted by a Facebook friend encouraging me to "just vote" for a specific candidate running in the Primary Election. Some people, unfortunately, will learn the hard way that this is easier said than done. In other words, you might be stumping for your favorite candidate for six months only to get to the voting booth and realize that you are not qualified to vote, even if you are a registered voter. But how can this be?
The New Jersey Primary Election is a "closed primary," which means that only those voters who have declared a party affiliation are permitted to vote. You may have declared a party affiliation when you first registered to vote, but do not even realize you are registered with a particular party. If you did not choose a party affiliation or you selected the no-affiliation option, then you are considered an unaffiliated voter. Here's where things get tricky. If you seek guidance from the New Jersey Division of Elections voting page, it will tell you that you must register twenty-one days before the Primary Election, or by May 17, 2016, to vote in this year's June 7th primary. But this information is a bit misleading. If you are not currently registered to vote, then you can register 21 days in advance of the election. If, however, you are already registered and affiliated with a political party and you wish to vote the primary election of a different political party, then you must switch your party affiliation fifty-five days prior to the June 7th primary (by April 13, 2016). If, for example, you affiliated with the Democratic Party when you first filled out your voter registration and you wish to vote in the Republican primary, you should change your party affiliation immediately and well before the purported twenty-one day registration deadline.
There is some good news when it comes to New Jersey's Primary Election. If you are an unaffiliated voter, you can vote in either primary (but not both). Technically, you are declaring your party affiliation at the voting booth. This process, however, creates another trap for the unwary. By voting in a Primary Election as an unaffiliated voter, you are automatically switched to an affiliated voter of that particular party. In other words, if you selected "unaffiliated" and thought you were an unaffiliated voter but voted in any Primary Election since your voter registration or subsequent Party Declaration Form was completed, then you are affiliated with the party you voted for in the last Primary Election. If you wish to remain an unaffiliated voter, you must re-designate yourself as such after voting in each Primary Election.
Now for the practical advice. If you are not sure whether you are registered or whether you are affiliated with a specific party, you can find out by logging onto the New Jersey Division of Elections Website and clicking "Am I registered." To determine if you are affiliated with a specific party, click on the Voter Information Page and sign up for an account. If you are not registered, you can register by filling out the voter registration form.
If you are registered but would like to change your party affiliation, fill out the Party Declaration Form.
You must send the Party Declaration Form to the Commission of Registration in your respective county. If you live in Mercer County, address for the Commissioner of Registration in Mercer County is as follows:
The Commissioner of Registration
640 S. Broad St
PO Box 8068
Trenton, NJ 08650.
After you vote, remember to switch your party affiliation back to unaffiliated if you wish to keep your options open for voting in the next Primary Election. Happy voting New Jersey!