ahesha Way ’96 began her tenure as New Jersey’s secretary of state in 2018 with two critical jobs on her plate.
The first is the upcoming 2020 census. In 2010, New Jersey had a 73% response rate, almost exactly the national average, but Way said she is determined to improve it. Much rides on her success, including an accurate apportionment of the state’s legislative and congressional districts, and $23 billion in federal funding tied to population. Way is chair of the New Jersey Complete Count Commission, which seeks to increase awareness around the state and develop a plan for getting people to return their census forms on time. “Our goal,” she said simply, “is to ensure that there is a reliable count.”
Her second major project is election security, both for this year’s statewide races and next year’s presidential election. The New Jersey Department of State works with the state Department of Homeland Security and a cybersecurity specialist, meeting with officials in all 21 of the state’s counties to assess their voting infrastructure. Counties that need assistance can receive federal funds to help upgrade their voting systems.
“We are determined to protect every citizen’s right to vote,” Way said. “And the way to do that is to be proactive rather than reactive, by working together with our partners across federal, state and local governments to protect our election infrastructure and prepare for any potential attacks on this fundamental American right.”
The secretary of state’s portfolio is much broader than that, however. Way is also responsible for a number of other initiatives focused on “enhancing New Jersey’s civic health.” These include the State Council on the Arts, the State Archives, and even travel and tourism programs such as the Anthony Bourdain Food Trail, which spotlights 10 New Jersey restaurants that were featured on the CNN show “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.”
Having an over-full plate comes naturally to Way. She earned her undergraduate degree at Brown University, where she was vice president of the campus chapter of the NAACP and an announcer on the campus radio station. At UVA, she worked on the Virginia Environmental Law Journal, and participated in the Black Law Students Association and the Peer Advisor Program. Outside of class, she worked with the Virginia Legal Aid Society and the United Steelworkers of America. After a few years in private practice and teaching English and administrative law at Fairleigh Dickinson University, she was an administrative law judge and a freeholder (a county legislative office) in Passaic County.
Way may be very busy, but she has her priorities. “It is such a privilege that I get to oversee these foundational twins of democracy,” she said, referring to the census and the vote.