NEWARK, NJ — Among municipalities throughout Essex County and the state, Newark historically suffers from a woeful record of voter participation.

A coalition of 19 nonprofits is leading the charge to close the voter registration gap by 10 percent by March 2020, signaling a renewed sense of urgency ahead of the next national election. 

Led by the Project Ready, an organization dedicated to strengthening Newark’s civic action through community education campaigns and initiatives, the coalition launched its Close the Gap campaign on Tuesday, coinciding with local and statewide elections. 

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“Each election day and the weeks after, I find myself incredibly disappointed with the voter turnout,” said Project Ready Executive Director Shennell McCloud. “We’re launching on election day because we want to launch with a plan. If voter turnout is at its highest, here’s what we’re doing to keep it at its highest. If it’s at a low point, here’s the action plan for what we’re going to do so we can increase by the next elections.”

Comprised of partners like the Gem Project, the NAACP, Newark Trust, Youth Build and others, the coalition stems from Project Ready’s 2018 vote-by-mail campaign, which saw more than 1,000 applications submitted by Newarkers. McCloud said her organization then realized the need for a three-pronged approach: registering unregistered voters, ensuring transportation to the polls and pushing the appropriate policies so citizens can exercise their votes. 

As part of the campaign, Project Ready deploys ambassadors who deliver training to participating organizations and teach the volunteers different outreach strategies. McCloud and her colleagues modeled their approach based on research from the organization Nonprofit Votes, which finds that promoting active civic participation through local nonprofits increases voter registration and turnout. 

Only slightly more than half of Newark’s population is currently registered to vote, translating to about 148,128 voters, 5% less than the city’s registered voters in 2016, according to the New Jersey Data Book. Newark also lags behind by more than 11 percentage points for Essex County overall, leaving the state’s largest city acutely underrepresented. 

Locally, only 5%of Newarkers turn out to vote for school board elections, McCloud said. 

The 19 organizations participating in the Close the Gap kickoff committed to registering a collective 4,100 Newarkers over a five-month period, surpassing the minimum goal of 2,500. 

But the work hardly ends with registration, according to McCloud. The organizations are also tasked with collecting signed voter commitment cards from the individuals they register, which will allow Project Ready to capture data and send election reminders via phone call and text message. 

“Civic engagement is a cornerstone of our work, and we think it’s necessary to move the city forward as a whole and, most importantly, to ensure positive educational outcomes for our students,” said Natasha Dyer, deputy director at Newark Trust for Education, a participant in the campaign effort. “We’d like to encourage people not only to register to vote but to actually go out and vote in often-overlooked elections like school board elections.”

Project Ready’s coalition-driven registration efforts are compounded by a simultaneous petition that enlists Newarkers to push for online voter registration. McCloud said while her organization’s coalition partners are on the ground pushing people to register to vote, Project Ready will focus on urging legislators to add New Jersey to the 33 states allowing voters to register from the comfort of their computers.