Voter turnout continued its downward trajectory this week, with fewer than 4 in 10 registered casting ballots. That’s the lowest turnout for a federal midterm election since at least 1970, with no easy answers as to how to get more people interested in voting.
With 99.5 percent of voting districts reporting, county clerks counted 1.9 million of the state’s 5.5 million registered bothering to choose a candidate for U.S. Senate, House, and local races. That’s a rate of just 35.1 percent. That could rise to about 37 percent once all the outstanding precincts and all mail-in and provisional ballots are counted, but it would still be lower than any previous election with Congress at the top of the ticket. Four years ago, with only the House races leading the ballot, 42 percent of voters cast ballots.
That’s disturbing to groups like the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, which works to promote voter engagement.
“Voter turnout has been historically low in midterm elections since the 1840s, but we can all agree that public officials should not continue to be elected by such a small percentage of the population” said Kerry Butch, the league’s executive director. “While there are a number of possible reasons for low turnout, including lack of competitive districts or voter disgust with a divided and partisan system, it is really important that we turn this trend around.”
Several political observers agreed that many feel unhappy with the state of politics in the nation and the lack of true contests.
“The way to generate more voter interest and participation is to increase competitiveness in elections,” said Brigid C. Harrison, a political science professor and law at Montclair State University. “With our current partisan gerrymandered system, mapmakers have more say than voters in who will go to Congress. In every election in the state — even in our open seats — the incumbent’s party won a resounding victory.”
The closest House race was a 10-point win by Republican Tom MacArthur in the 3rd District for an open seat. The largest was a 69-vote margin in the 10th District that includes Newark, where freshman Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr. got 83 percent of the vote.
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said this year, in particular, a lack of engagement among Democrats affected turnout, and not just in New Jersey.
“This was a national issue,” Murray said. “Disaffected Dems stayed home.”
The voting patterns by county would seem to bear that out.
Two of the three counties with the largest turnouts — Cape May and Hunterdon — have Republican registration pluralities, while the third, Salem, has slightly more registered Democrats than Republicans, but county government is GOP-controlled and the county voted for Republican Jeff Bell for U.S. Senate. The lowest turnouts were in Democratic strongholds: Hudson, Essex, and Middlesex counties.
Speaking at a post-election discussion at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University on Wednesday, Political Science Professor Ross Baker called the Democratic party “the party of low turnout groups,” including minorities and the poor.
At the same event, Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky said the Republican party “energized” its base, including older, white voters.
Historically, the three counties with the greatest voter turnout records — again, Hunterdon, Salem, and Cape May — are older and less diverse than New Jersey as a whole. The three counties with the lowest turnout from 1998 on — Hudson, Essex, and Cumberland — are all younger and have larger minority populations than the state average.
Demographics aside, the League of Women Voters would like to change the substance of elections as a way of enticing more people to the polls.
“We have found that most people are moved to the polls because they care about a particular issue,” Butch said. “As a country, we need to start focusing elections around issues and not on partisan politics.”