Opinion: New Jersey’s Pathetic Primary Turnout — A Contrary View

Dick Zimmer | June 9, 2014 | Opinion
Why common wisdom and popular prescriptions won’t help boost voter turnout at primary elections

Credit: Amanda Brown
Dick Zimmer

Voter turnout in last week’s primaries hit a record low. Fewer than 8 percent of the electorate showed up. This has led to renewed discussion in NJ Spotlight and elsewhere about why New Jerseyans don’t vote and how they can be convinced to do so.

A leading reason for low voter participation in primaries is that most people don’t understand that they are often the most important elections. As Tammany Hall’s Boss Tweed reputedly said, “I don’t care who does the electing so long as I get to do the nominating.”

Another reason for low participation is that New Jerseyans mistakenly believe they have to be registered as a member of a party in order to vote in a primary. Even NJ Spotlight’s post-primary poll got this wrong when it stated: “Most registered voters in NJ are independents. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to choose candidates?”

The only voters who are disqualified from voting in a primary are the minuscule number that have filed a declaration stating they don’t want to be affiliated with either major party. New Jersey voters who have never voted in a primary and have not filed this form are free to vote in either party’s primary. Such voters make up nearly half of New Jersey’s electorate. But because primary candidates rarely communicate with them, they hardly ever think about voting.

In fact, in non-presidential election years, most primary candidates can afford to target only the most frequent primary voters, leaving most members of their own party in the dark.

Once an unaffiliated voter does vote in a party’s primary, he or she is then considered a member of that party. Given the unpopularity of both parties, that in itself reduces turnout.

Some have suggested that New Jersey could increase its primary turnout by emulating California, which recently approved a ballot proposition creating a “top two” or “jungle” primary. Under this process, every candidate, regardless of party, runs in a single primary election open to all voters. The top two finishers, regardless of party, run against each other in the general election. But top-two primaries don’t increase turnout. On the same day New Jersey set its record for low turnout in our primary, California set its own record low, albeit at a level higher than New Jersey’s.

Some New Jersey legislators believe turnout can be boosted by establishing extra voting days before elections. But the early-voting legislation pending in the state legislature does not apply to primaries. Could the sponsors have been inspired by Boss Tweed?

Others have suggested that we follow Oregon’s example of using only mail-in ballots. This could be a good idea, but it may not result in much higher voter participation. New Jersey already allows mail-in ballots without any conditions. And even with mail-only ballots, Oregon’s participation rate has been declining.

In the end, voters will participate in primaries if they think their vote means something. Usually it doesn’t. That’s because most New Jersey primaries are uncontested or only nominally contested. And the reason is money.

To win a competitive race above the municipal level, you have got to buy a lot of TV advertising in the nation’s most expensive media market (New York) and/or its fourth-most expensive media market (Philadelphia). Statewide candidates have to do both. And if you buy ads on broadcast TV (still the most effective form of campaign advertising), you’ll spend most of your money to reach voters in other states who can’t vote for you. That’s why it costs more per voter to run a competitive race in New Jersey than in any other state.

Those who can raise enough money are the incumbents, who also benefit from the organization line on the primary ballot. And, because of gerrymandering, congressional and legislative candidates from the out party usually don’t have a chance in the general election, so they can’t raise enough money to run a decent primary campaign.

Anyone who thinks that political campaigns should spend less money should look at the results of this year’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Patrick Murray of Monmouth University wrote a thorough analysis of that election, plausibly attributing the results to a variety of factors, ranging from ballot position to the ethnicity of the candidates’ names.

Regrettably, the list did not include the qualifications of the candidates or their policy positions. That’s because none of the candidates raised enough money to effectively communicate with a substantial portion of the 142,000 Republican voters who actually showed up at the polls.

So what’s the solution? Redistricting reform would help spur turnout in congressional and state legislative races. But unless and until inexpensive social media replaces commercial TV as the principal means of political communication in New Jersey, voters will continue to stay home on primary day.