(TNS) — TRENTON -- Gov. Christie on Monday vetoed legislation that would have brought sweeping changes to the state's voting laws, panning the bill as "thinly veiled political gamesmanship."
Christie, a Republican running for president, previously criticized the legislation as an effort by the Democratic National Committee to increase voter fraud.
"Ultimately, New Jersey taxpayers deserve better than to have their hard-earned tax dollars spent on thinly veiled political gamesmanship, and the state must ensure that every eligible citizen's vote counts and is not stolen by fraud," Christie wrote in his veto message.
"This 71-page bill, styled as 'The Democracy Act,' will not further democracy but endanger the state's long-standing and proven election system," he wrote.
Christie's veto was met with immediate criticism from Democrats and groups such as the state conference of the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Latino Action Network, and New Jersey Working Families.
Democrats said the bill was intended to boost voter participation. They had anticipated a veto, and a few months ago Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said he would consider asking voters to amend the constitution to implement the changes.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) reiterated that message Monday. To put the amendment on the ballot next year, three-fifths of both houses of the Legislature would have to support it.
The bill passed along party lines in the Democratic-controlled Legislature in June.
It would establish automatic registration when eligible voters apply for a driver's license or other form of state ID at the Motor Vehicle Commission; offer online voter registration; and create more opportunities for in-person early voting.
"This is the bottom line - the people of New Jersey want changes to our voting laws and they shouldn't have to wait," Prieto said in a statement.
"The right to vote is a hallmark of our democracy, but access to that right to vote is also tantamount," he said. "New Jersey has been stuck in the Stone Age when it comes to our voting laws. We could have changed this with these commonsense reforms."
Supporters of the legislation say it's needed to boost voter turnout and registration among eligible voters. It's difficult to assess where New Jersey ranks among the states in these categories, because research organizations have used different methodologies to calculate the statistics.
A historic low of 21 percent of registered voters cast ballots in last week's elections, though analysts largely attributed that to the fact that little-known Assembly races topped the ballot.
"No democracy can truly claim to be by and for the people if it does not have broad participation of the electorate," Richard Smith, president of the New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP, said in a statement. "The provisions of the Democracy Act are too critical to our state's future, and legislators cannot allow them to be struck down by a veto pen."
The Democratic National Committee said Christie's action reflected "a Republican Party committed to limiting ballot access across the country."
"For a candidate struggling to pick up any votes at all and relegated to the kids' table tomorrow night, you'd think Governor Christie would agree that every vote matters," the DNC added, referring to Christie's demotion to the so-called undercard debate.
Christie rejected the notion that New Jersey failed to provide eligible voters with "sufficient opportunities to register to vote."
"Quite the contrary," he wrote, "current voter registration opportunities are manifold. For example, citizens can easily obtain voter registration applications online or at motor vehicle agencies, county and municipal offices, schools, libraries, social services agencies, and other public offices."
Christie's veto comes amid a nationwide battle over voting laws. Under the bill, New Jersey would have followed Oregon and California to become the third state with automatic registration.
Twenty-one states have imposed new voting restrictions since the 2010 election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, which supports the New Jersey measure Christie vetoed.
Since the 2012 election, though, 23 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws to improve voting, the center says.
The legislation also would change the procedure for filling congressional vacancies. It would require the governor to make a temporary appointment within 30 days of a vacancy in the Senate. The appointee would have to be a member of the same political party as the departed senator.
It would establish procedures for holding an election for the seat on the same day as the general election that year or the following one, depending on the timing of the vacancy.
In June 2013, Christie appointed his attorney general, Republican Jeffrey S. Chiesa, to the Senate after the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat. Christie then ordered a special general election to be held in October of that year, less than a month before the general election.
Democrats complained that Christie's decision cost the state more money and also suggested that Christie didn't want the popular Booker to appear on the November ballot when the governor was up for reelection.
In his veto message, Christie noted that he had vetoed an early-voting bill in 2013, which he said would have "cost taxpayers $25 million initially and millions more each subsequent year."
The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services agreed with Christie's cost estimates for the 2013 bill. But the office said the costs and savings associated with the new, more comprehensive bill were "indeterminate."
©2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.