By Shennell McCloud

The New Jersey Legislature voted last week to extend the right to vote by mail to thousands of residents who otherwise may not have voted in upcoming state elections. Senate President Steve Sweeney and the Democratic members of the Senate and Assembly who voted for the bill deserve credit for standing up for voting rights and for underserved communities.

Here’s why this bill was important: The 2019 state Assembly elections will almost definitely be the lowest turnout statewide elections in years. In 2015, the last time New Jersey had an “off-off year” election, statewide voter turnout was just 22 percent — the lowest in state history.

Data shows that as voter turnout decreases, the voters whose voices are silenced are people of color living in underserved communities. This creates an unvirtuous cycle of neglect. Politicians and political parties put little effort into communicating with these voters about lower-profile elections because they believe these voters are less likely to turnout. Then (surprise, surprise) when these voters turn out at a low rate, the political powers-that-be find confirmation of their bias.

I know this because I’ve lived it. As the leader of Project Ready, a nonprofit which focuses on increasing voting rights, I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve spoken with someone in Newark about an upcoming local election, only to hear that they never received a single communication about it from a campaign or local government. We simply cannot expect people to vote when we fail to engage them. Our organization recently ran a campaign to remedy this, by registering more than 1,000 Newarkers to vote by mail ahead of the recent school board election.

Our efforts made a difference, but we need government to step up to the plate in a bigger way, by enacting common-sense democratic reforms that give more people access to the ballot. In Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, every voter receives a vote-by-mail ballot for each election. Studies have shown that allowing people to vote by mail, from the comfort of their own homes, is hands down the best way to increase voter turnout. In fact, these three “vote-at-home” states produced the highest turnout of all — 81 percent on average.

Limitations in New Jersey

In New Jersey, we’re not yet providing vote-by-mail ballots to everyone, only to those who request one. But, thanks to the legislation passed by Democratic legislators, at least we’ll now provide a vote-by-mail ballot to every voter who has requested one.

If you’re asking yourself how anyone could oppose this bill, trust me: You’re not alone. But that’s exactly what Senate Republicans did, citing a litany of concerns straight out of the Trump playbook. The real reason Republicans are crying foul is that they’re afraid of increasing voter participation. Yes — data shows that as turnout has increased, so has the Democratic margin of victory. But that analysis misses the point. If Republicans want to earn the favor of a broader pool of voters, they should change their policies to appeal to more people, not seek to hold down the number of people who can vote. This is the same destructive, racist motivation that spawned the poll tax.

The truth is that by making it easier for people living in underserved communities to vote, we can elect candidates who reflect the values of a broader, more diverse set of constituents — not just a privileged few. Increasing voter participation creates a virtuous cycle; more people voting means electing better leaders, which leads to policies that benefit more people.

New Jersey isn’t there yet. But last week’s vote was a step in the right direction, and a win for democracy.

Thanks to my village, I'm #ready.

My name is Kiara Page and I’m a senior at Barringer High School. After I graduate this month, I’ll begin the Educational Opportunity Fund program at Montclair State University, where I’m going to study psychology. When I think about my high school experience, three words come to mind -- exciting, busy, and educational. These past four years have connected me to other students, to my passion for social justice and youth advocacy, and, most importantly, to my future as a college student -- the first in my family.

They say it takes a village, and it’s true. As a first generation college student like me, you need a large support system to make it through high school, navigate the college application and enrollment processes, and feel prepared for the future. For me, this support system was both inside and outside of Barringer. For three years, I was part of the Sadie Nash program - a sisterhood academy where I learned about social injustice, how to be a leader, and, through Nash U, the different types of scholarship and grant opportunities available to students. Through the Gem Project, I expanded my passion for social justice. After studying mass incarceration and the school to prison pipeline, I created an art installation and hosted an art gallery with my peers where we had an open discussion about the art and the social justice topics. This helped me to build friendships and bonds and strengthened my village. I was also part of Newark Youth Court, dealing with actual students and issues like truancy. This helped me realize that everyone doesn’t go through the same thing. People have different experiences and traumas, but it’s important to bring people together and try to understand.

Outside of school and my after-school activities, my parents helped round out my village. I’m so glad that my Mom was involved. She attended every conference and meeting and advocated for me and for my future. This made me realize how much she cares about what I’m doing in life. Also, my mom was a role model for other parents. She became part of their village, and motivated other parents to get involved and learn more about the school and what’s going on.

There is a sense of urgency in the country today, especially among young people like me. We are the next generation. Students complain about politics, our leadership, and the state of education. But they’re not as involved as they could be to make a difference. We can all take action in different ways, even if it just means spreading information, attending a protest or an event, and using your social media platforms to speak your mind. We need to motivate all young people to take those steps and most importantly, to vote.  I’m registered to vote and I’ve already voted -- in the Newark Board of Education election this past April.

I am so grateful to be able to participate in Project Ready’s #1000CarePackages initiative and give back to the village that has shaped who I am today. I hope I can make a difference and help make our city, state, and our country a better place in the future. I’m ready for college, and ready to tackle my future and turn my passion for social justice into action.


Project Ready, a community organization founded this year, hosted a “1,000 Newarkers Vote By Mail Luncheon” today at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark, New Jersey.

The luncheon brought together more than 120 Newarkers to celebrate the success of Project Ready’s first initiative, which helped over 1,000 Newark residents register to vote by mail. Attendees were also able to register to vote by mail before the luncheon as they signed in for the event. Featured speakers at the event included State Senator Teresa Ruiz, Assemblywoman Shanique Speight, Board of Education President Josephine Garcia, Newark School Board Members Flohisha Hill and Asia Norton, Google Executive Valeisha Butterfield Jones, and Jocelyn Harmon, Co-Founder of BlackHer.


Project Ready NJ Celebrates 1,000 Vote by Mail Registrations for Newark School Board Election

Author: Kei-Sygh Thomas, TAPinto Newark
Date: March 7th, 2019
Category or tag: Relevant News
Blurb: Growing up on Avon Avenue in Newark’s South Ward, Shennell McCloud said the focus in her home was to get a good education, give back when possible, and do the best that she could. She had siblings, clothing, food, and love thanks to her two doting parents.Yet, somewhere between the values of hard work and altruism, she missed a critical lesson about civic responsibility. “We didn’t have time to focus on voter education, government, policy. It is people like me who become the suppressed voter because I am undereducated, unaware of my rights, unaware of my power,” said McCloud.


Voting by mail should be easier, group says. Don’t N.J. legislators want a more inclusive democracy?

Author: Shennell McCloud, Star-Ledger
Date: April 11th, 2019
Category or tag: Op-Ed
Blurb: Newark is New Jersey’s largest city, but it has among the lowest voter turnouts in the state. This under-representation, which is common among communities of color and low-income communities, undermines our democracy. Through voting reform and civic action, we must break down the barriers to voting.


I Want To Raise My Children In A World Where People of Color Are Empowered To Vote: Here’s How We Get It Done!

Author: Laura Waters, NJ Left Behind
Date: February 8th, 2019
Category or tag: Op-Ed
Blurb: In Newark, New Jersey (where I live), voter participation is shockingly low in elections that have a massive impact on our city. Take last year’s election for the Newark Board of Education, for example just 7,000 of registered voters turned out to vote, despite the fact that Newarkers were electing the first locally-controlled school board in twenty years. People wonder why it takes so long to create the change we seek in our schools. This is why. If we’re going to have truly representative leadership, we need more people engaged in local elections that have a profound impact on our children.


New Community Advocacy Group Project Ready, Hosts “1,000 Newarkers Vote By Mail” Luncheon

Author: Laura Waters, NJ Left Behind
Date: March 4, 2019
Category or tag: Relevant News
Blurb: Shennell McCloud’s new community organization, Project Ready NJ, hosted a celebration of its successful first initiative: to get 1,000 Newarkers, mostly women of color, to register to vote by mail. Why? Because Shennell and her enthusiastic team believe voting is a critical issue of access and equity, as well as a key part of its mission of serving the families of Newark. Never ones to waste an opportunity, staffers were on hand to help attendees register to vote by mail right at the event.