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Primary Issue: Just How Low Can Voter Turnout Go in New Jersey?

Highest number of registered voters in a least a decade elected to stay home Tuesday

Tuesday's primary, with congressional seats topping the ballot, drew the fewest voters in at least a decade, according to preliminary turnout data from New Jersey's county clerks.

So far, with a handful of voting precincts and mail-in ballots still to be counted in a few counties, it appears about 406,000 people voted. That's 7.6 percent of the total number registered, including those unaffiliated with the major parties who would have to declare as Democrat or Republican in order to vote in a primary. Very few do so.

Looking only at those with partisan registrations, the turnout numbers improve, though not by much. About 12.8 percent of registered Democrats, or 229,000, and 15.8 percent of Republicans, or 171,000, cast ballots for candidates for the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives, and local offices.

Those figures are even lower than in 2006, when the turnout was 8.4 percent of all registered voters, 19.2 percent of Democrats and 21.3 percent of Republicans. Like this year, a U.S. Senate seat and House seats were atop the ticket. And they are significantly lower than in 2012. That year, the overall turnout was 11.2 percent.

Turnout has consistently been higher among GOP voters, except in 2008, the first year in which President Obama ran for office. How to get more voters to the polls was one question tackled on Wednesday at a postelection forum sponsored by Rutgers' Eagleton Institute of Politics.

"People are becoming more and more disabused of the notion of having to go out and vote in elections," said former Gov. Jim Florio, who was one of the panelists. It's a pattern he called "troubling."

"Unfortunately, we don't have as many people who are as passionate about the right to vote as I think they should be," agreed Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth), another panelist.
"To me, a big reason is if you don't think there's anything you can make a difference on," said Ruth Mandel, Eagleton director, "if you are in a district where they are always going to elect the same party or the same person."

Florio suggested one way to boost turnout would be for New Jersey to adopt a primary system similar to that of California, in which all those registered can vote and all candidates, regardless of party, compete against one another. The two candidates who get the most votes, regardless of party, move on to the general election. A number of bills are pending in the Legislature to expand voting options in various ways, including by mail or early in person.

Camden County Clerk Joe Ripa sees an expansion of voting by mail, which became mainstream in 2009, as part of the answer. He said he and the deputy clerk visit senior centers, nursing homes, high schools, and other organizations in the weeks leading up to an election to educate people about the upcoming vote and distribute ballots. The result: Camden received 8,565 mail-in ballots this year, fully a third of the total.

It could get even higher. Ripa said that in Oregon, which uses solely voting by mail, the turnout is roughly 75 percent.

"I personally don't care how people vote as long as they vote," he said. "I think it's our responsibility to encourage people to vote, not discourage them."

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