Why N.J. has seen historic lows in voter turnout recently

By Brent Johnson | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on December 30, 2014

Gov. Chris Christie exits a voting machine at the Emergency Services Building after voting in the 2014 general election. Mendham, NJ

 

TRENTON — Last month's elections continued what has become a striking trend in New Jersey recently: People are voting at historically low rates.

Though U.S. Sen. Cory Booker — a nationally known politician — won his first full term in Washington and all 12 of the state's seats in the U.S. House of Representatives were up for grabs, only 36 percent of New Jersey's registered voters cast ballots in November's midterm elections. It was the lowest voter turnout for a regularly scheduled federal election in state history.

In fact, each of New Jersey's last seven statewide elections have set some kind of record for low turnout — a stretch of voter apathy that experts blame partly on citizens being frustrated with partisan bickering and campaign finance issues.

"I think people are fed up with government," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "How do you expect people to go out and vote for an institution in which about one in 10 have any faith in?"

Experts say other factors play a part, as well: the state's lack of competitive races, the schedule of its elections, and the method in which New Jersey votes. And the numbers are unlikely to improve next November, they add.

The Garden State's totals this year mirrored a national trend. Only 36 percent of eligible voters cast ballots across the U.S. — the lowest turnout since 1942, when a mere 34 percent voted in an election held the first full year the nation fought in World War II, according to numbers from the United States Election Project, a group that measures vote totals.

Eligible voters include both registered voters and those who are old enough to vote but aren't registered. By that measure, New Jersey's turnout this year was even lower, at about 31 percent — making it one of 12 states that saw less than a third of its eligible voters cast ballots.

"New Jersey is a microcosm of what was happening in some of the largest states in the country," said Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida who runs the Election Project.

HISTORICAL NUMBERS

Before 1998, no federal or gubernatorial election in New Jersey history had ever drawn less than 50 percent of registered voters. Many presidential elections — which usually attract the largest number of ballots — topped 80 percent. In 1960, when John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon, 91 percent showed up at the polls.

The numbers began to fluctuate in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.

Still, 2008 was a watershed. Barack Obama was elected the nation's first black president in a race that saw the largest voter turnout across the U.S. since the 1960s — a number driven up by a large swath of young residents registering to vote for the first time. In New Jersey, 73 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

"People were highly motivated to vote," said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University.

But it's been a different story since then. In 2009, Republican Chris Christie beat Gov. Jon Corzine in an election that drew 47 percent of New Jersey's registered voters — then a record low for a gubernatorial race in the state. (By comparison, the last time an incumbent governor lost a re-election bid — when Republican Christie Whitman defeated Gov. Jim Florio in 1993 — 65 percent voted.)

In 2010, New Jersey's midterm elections attracted only 42 percent — tying the state's then-record low turnout for a regularly scheduled federal election.

In 2011, New Jersey saw the lowest turnout for an election in which state Legislature seats topped the ticket: 27 percent.

In 2012, Obama's re-election drew only a 67 percent turnout in New Jersey — the lowest-ever for a presidential election in the state.

In 2013, two records were set. Booker was elected to the U.S. Senate in a special race to fill the seat vacated after Frank Lautenberg died. The race — which albeit was held on a Wednesday in October — saw a turnout of 24.5 percent, the lowest in any statewide race in New Jersey history.

A month later, Christie — a potential 2016 presidential candidate — was re-elected in a landslide, though the turnout was about only 40 percent, the lowest for any New Jersey gubernatorial race. (By comparison, 52 percent voted when another popular Republican, Tom Kean, was re-elected governor.)

Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami-Covello said many of the new voters who registered in 2008 likely didn't cast ballots in subsequent elections, driving down turnout numbers.

Murray, the Monmouth pollster, said some of those voters may have lost hope — a problem he said has long been brewing.

"People had heighten expectations that things would change under Obama in 2008, and that didn't happen," he said. "That may be a contributing factor to the acceleration in decay in public trust. But the decay was already happening."

NO COMPETITION

Experts agree that another large part of the blame is a lack of competitive races. New Jersey re-drew its congressional districts in 2011, a move that has made it easier for incumbents to win.

"Mapmakers have more of a vote than anyone who turns up on Election Day," Harrison said. "The outcome is a foregone conclusion."

Indeed, in last month's elections, the most competitive House race was a battle for an open seat in south Jersey's 3rd congressional district. Republican Tom MacArthur beat Democrat Aimee Belgard by 13 percentage points.

Booker, meanwhile, won his Senate race by 13 points. And last year, Christie beat Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono by about 22 points.

"Parties are working hard to entice voters to vote," McDonald said. "But where there's a lack of competition, voters don't see the reason to vote. They don't see that vote being meaningful."

The Florida professor noted that this year's numbers across the nation were pulled down because the three largest states in the U.S. — California, New York, and Texas — saw less than a third of its eligible voters cast ballots.

Still, McDonald said this year's turnout numbers might be "an aberration" because of that. He expects the 2016 presidential election — an open race — to draw better.

And he said turnout may continue to rise across the country in coming years as the minority voting bloc grows larger — and gets older.

"As people age, they tend to have higher voting rates," McDonald said. "And as the Hispanic vote grows, their turnout rates are going to grow as they age."

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS

Experts say New Jersey could also improve turnout by allowing early voting. Christie vetoed a measure last year that would have allowed voters to cast ballots in a 15-day period before Election Day. A similar measure recently passed the state Senate and is now awaiting a vote in the state Assembly.

At the same time, McDonald said New Jersey should consider instituting a mail-in ballot system. Colorado became the latest of three states to move to mail voting this year, and the result was a 53.4 percent voter turnout — the fourth-largest in the country. (Oregon and Washington are the other two that use mail-in voting.)

In that system, voters are mailed their ballots, which McDonald said serves as an automatic reminder to vote.

"People are reminded that they can do their civic duty," he said.

McDonald added that New Jersey should also consider moving its state Legislature elections to even numbered years to share the ballot with federal elections in an effort to coax more people to the polls. Next year's elections feature only state Assembly seats, and experts expect the number to be thin again.

"I won't be surprised at a low turnout next year," Somerset County Clerk Brett Radi said.

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