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Making Sense of New Jersey's Upcoming Special Senate Elections

With low turnout expected, or feared, NJ groups and candidates get word out on voting by mail, declaring party affiliation at polls, other issues

ben dworkin
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics and a political science professor at Rider University, says it will be difficult to get voters to turn out for elections to fill the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg's seat.

In less than two weeks, New Jersey is going to hold an unprecedented special statewide election and many in the state fear few are going to vote.

“Only the most committed, most dedicated, most partisan voters would show up on a Tuesday in August to vote in this election,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics and a political science professor at Rider University.

The primary on Tuesday, August 13 will determine which Democrat and Republican will appear on a special October ballot to replace Sen. Frank Lautenberg, the Democrat who had represented New Jersey for 29 of the last 31 years before his death two months ago.

Confusion over this highly unusual August election is expected to lead to turnout even lower than the typical primary. Candidates and organizations like the League of Women Voters of New Jersey are working to alert potential voters about the date (and extended hours), their ability to vote even if they are not registered as either a Democrat or a Republican, and the opportunity for all New Jerseyans to vote by mail.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said New Jersey has not held a special election for statewide office that did not fall on one of the two typical election days -- the first Tuesday in June for the primary and the first Tuesday in November for the general -- at least since the current state constitution was written in 1947.

“What has happened is that when there’s a vacancy, it is filled at the next primary/general combo,” Murray said. “If the seat would have normally been up at that election, there are two simultaneous ballots -- one to fill the remainder of the current term and one to fill the subsequent full term that begins after the election.”

That is exactly what happened last year, when Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-10th) died in office in March. A primary last June determined the parties’ candidates for both the regular and special elections, both held at the same time on the regular November ballot. Donald Payne Jr. won both, and so he took office almost immediately to finish out his father’s term and then began his regular two-year term in January.

This year, however, Gov. Chris Christie made the unusual decision to hold special primary and general elections on other days to fill the seat. Christie, who has appointed his former attorney general to temporarily fill the seat, said he wanted the people to be able to fill the slot as quickly as possible. Democrats, though, charged that the governor did not want to share the November ballot with the Senate race, which could take votes away from what he hopes will be a historic victory.

“Not all special elections are created equal,” Dworkin said. “The governor was able to manipulate the election calendar, which he did to his own benefit.”

The special dates do not benefit voters, but are likely to lead to many staying home.

“New Jersey already sees very low voter turnout for primary elections,” said Jesse Burns, communications and projects director for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. “There is a very real possibility that this August, a time when people are not accustomed to voting and many are on vacation, we will see even lower turnout.”

Over the past 20 years, the percentage of eligible voters going to the polls, including independents who can declare a party at the time of the election, has ranged from a low of 6 percent to a high of 35 percent -- in 2008, when the state changed its presidential primary to February to try to make New Jersey’s votes more meaningful.

In 2010, the last year for which the New Jersey Division of Elections lists primary turnout data, 9 percent of all those eligible voted, although the turnout for those registered as Democrats or Republicans was higher -- 12.1 percent for Democrats and 25.2 percent for Republicans.

The primary for one seat, held in the middle of the summer, is not likely to attract many voters.

“While NJ residents may be aware of the elections, their attention might be elsewhere,” Burns said. “The league has heard through our voter assistance hotline 1-800-792-VOTE that many residents are confused by the closed primary system in New Jersey. They do not know if they are eligible to vote. It is important that people know that unaffiliated voters can declare on primary election day at the polls and vote in that party’s primary.”

The deadline to change party affiliation to vote has long since passed -- it was June 19, just two days after Christie announced the special primary date. But a person not currently affiliated with a party can simply show up to vote on August 13 for either a Democrat or a Republican.

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