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Making Sense of New Jersey's Upcoming Special Senate Elections

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.

“The league is doing everything we can to bolster participation and combat confusion,” said Burns, noting New Jerseyans face three elections in three months. “Right now we are reminding people that they can apply to vote by mail in New Jersey and helping them understand that process.”

NJ Workers’ Voices also has begun a campaign trying to push voters to make a better choice -- vote by mail. Its list of the top 10 reasons to vote by mail include an early end to annoying campaign calls and the ability to vote in your pajamas.

New Jersey changed its special balloting system several years ago to allow anyone to vote by mail for any reason. A voter can mail a request for a vote-by-mail ballot to his county clerk by next Tuesday, August 6, or get a vote-by-mail ballot in person from the clerk’s office by Monday, August 12. On receipt of the ballot, a person fills it out and mails it back. People who have voted by mail in the past and requested a mail in ballot for every election need do nothing: They will get the ballot automatically.

While the website of the elections division contains information about voting by mail, the state does virtually nothing else to promote the opportunity.

“There is no public education campaign on the ability to vote by mail,” Dworkin said. “I don’t think the general public has any clue about the availability of this.”

Murray said that less than 8 percent of the turnout in 2012 was from vote-by-mail ballots, which is still lower than other states with similar laws. It could be higher still this year, since Democrats, in particular, have been conducting their own vote by mail campaigns.

A leader in this has been Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Not only does his website give the date of the primary in large print on its front page, but the site also includes a how-to page on the topic that includes a video Booker narrated explaining the vote-by-mail process.

Last year’s election was highly unusual for New Jersey, which relaxed many rules due to superstorm Sandy’s devastation little more than a week before the general election. The vote-by-mail deadlines were extended and people could also vote in person at the county clerks’ offices over the weekend leading up to Election Day. Secretary of State Kim Guadagno, who oversees the state elections division, has never released any data enumerating how many people voted by alternative means last November.

Calls to Guadagno’s office were referred to one of Christie’s press aides, who did return a request for information about the upcoming special primary.

Of further confusion to voters are expanded hours that some counties are instituting. Unlike the polling hours of 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., these are not uniform.

For instance, the Morris County Clerk has announced expanded voting hours on Saturday, August 10, 8 a.m. to noon, and Monday, August 12, 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. New Jerseyans who want to take advantage of this situation must go the county clerk's office and fill out a mail-in ballot. The Hunterdon County Clerk will stay open Thursday, August 8 until 7 p.m. and open on Saturday, August 10 between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. for walk-in mail-in balloting. Some clerks have not announced any additional hours.

The special elections are costing the state more money. The state Office of Legislative Services estimated earlier this year that a special election would cost $12 million. New Jersey’s special Senate primary and general election, scheduled for October 16, are expected to cost $24 million. Last month, the head of the division of the elections wrote a memo indicating the state would reimburse municipalities and counties for all “reasonable and necessary expenses” due to the election.

While groups like the LWV support civic participation in the election process for its own sake, there is a lot at stake for the candidates to get their backers to vote, particularly when turnout is expected to be so low. The latest polls put Booker far ahead of his three opponents -- Rep. Frank Pallone, Rep. Rush Holt, and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver -- but that won’t matter if his backers don’t cast ballots.

“All the candidates are focused on getting their supporters out to vote and vote early, if possible,” Dworkin said.

Vote-by-mail applications are available online at the LWV website and county clerks' websites. The league also runs a voter hotline: 1-800-792-VOTE (8683).

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