Diving into the Data: NJ’s Biggest June Primary Turnout This Century

Carly Sitrin | June 9, 2016 | Politics
Early estimates indicate that more than 1.26 million residents showed up at the polls. What’s the story behind the numbers?

Editor’s note: This story as originally published was inaccurate. The errors have been corrected in this version.

This week’s election saw the biggest turnout in a June primary since before the turn of the century. Although official data won’t be available from the New Jersey Division of Elections until sometime in July, preliminary and partial data indicate that at least 1.26 million went to the polls.

Nearly half of registered Democrats and Republicans cast ballots on Tuesday, a percentage surpassed only by the 2008 presidential primary — the only one not held in June in recent years, but in February — when an electorate energized by the candidacy of Barack Obama turned out in record numbers. More than 1.7 million cast ballots in that primary. While the state has not posted comparable registration figures for that period, that number equates to about 63 percent of the number of Democrats and Republicans registered in May for the traditional June primary.

Although turnout can be influenced by interest in congressional, county, or local races, more people vote in presidential election years as a rule than in other years, so the presidential race is seen as the biggest draw for voters.

In the 20 counties that reported total turnout — Middlesex did not post turnout figures on its elections website and did not return a request for that information — more than half of previously registered Democrats and Republicans went to the polls (see chart). Although that accounted for nearly 48 percent of all the Democrats and Republicans registered, technically the percentage could be smaller because those numbers include anyone unaffiliated who showed up to vote and declared for a party at the polling place.

The turnout was more than twice the 22 percent who showed up to vote in the most recent presidential election primary (2012) and some 9 points higher than the 39 percent that voted in 2000. It was also a larger percentage than voted in the last two general elections.

This year’s high turnout came as no surprise to Ben Dworkin director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

“Higher turnout rate is what we expected,” Dworkin said. “In 2012, both the Democratic and Republican races were decided by time New Jersey voted so there wasn’t much incentive to get out and vote.”

It’s the sense of competition that encourages more people to cast ballots, according to Dworkin.

That makes sense at least on the Democratic side, because in 2012 there was only one candidate — President Obama — on the ballot, while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not clinch the nomination this year until Tuesday (or Monday, according to an Associated Press delegate survey). As in this year, the GOP nomination had already been decided by the time New Jersey voted.

That tends to be the case, since New Jersey is among the last states to hold primaries — Washington, D.C., has the final primary, next week.

In 2000, both party’s nominees — Democratic Vice President Al Gore and George W. Bush, the Republican who would win the presidency that fall — were decided back in March. Still, that year boasted the highest presidential primary turnout this century prior to this week’s voting, but voting in general has declined since then.

Still, the turnout numbers this year weren’t just high, they were record breaking for a June primary. Krista Jenkins, a political science professor and executive director of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll, said voters in this primary were much more impassioned than in previous cycles.

“We are in a very different election,” Jenkins said. “You have these two sides who have galvanized their supporters and you’ve got a perfect storm of frustration with the system and renegade outsiders coming in from the fringe. This distrust and cynicism towards the system is fueling people to vote.”

Tuesday’s strong turnout both reversed a trend of generally declining percentages of voter turnout in the state, with the 2008 presidential primary being the exception, and the predictions by some that people that Republicans in particular would stay home because of the controversy surrounding presumptive nominee Donald Trump.

Instead, Trump’s presence seemed to have the opposite effect.

“Trump remains his own vote-generating machine.” Dworkin said. “He is a unique force in American politics and therefore inspires many people to show up even if the vote really didn’t matter.”

The Republican turnout rate rose even without a contested race, attributable to Trump’s distinctive candidacy, Dworkin added.

A smaller proportion of Republicans than Democrats did vote on Tuesday. In the 17 counties that have provided turnout by party, more than half the registered Democrats went to the polls, while the GOP turnout was 43 percent of registrants. Those numbers could be higher, even assuming some of those who voted in the primary had not previously declared for one of the major parties, because nearly 2 percent of the voting districts in those counties have yet to report results or turnout.

Jenkins said voters see this election as an opportunity for change. Every candidate has “diehard supporters,” willing to go the extra mile for their pick, she noted. It also has the historic angle of a woman on the top of the ballot. All of this came together to drive people to the polls, added Jenkins.

In sheer numbers, more Democrats also voted: about 736,000 in the 17 counties (exclusive of Cape May, Cumberland, Middlesex and Union) of the 1.4 million eligible, compared with some 407,000 Republicans of 939,000 registered as Republicans.

Another unique aspect of this year’s primary was the significant number of people who switched parties, as reported by NorthJersey.com. Because New Jersey has a closed primary process, Jenkins said that those shifts signified a strong reaction to the candidates.

“People abandoning or changing their affiliation suggests a degree of intensity that we haven’t really seen before.” Jenkins says.

Not all party switching is done officially however. In Warren County, which posted its write-in results, the person getting the most write-ins by Republicans was Bernie Sanders with 59 Republican write-ins out of 193. There were only 18 Democratic write-ins, eight of which were for Trump.

When the Associated Press made the call on Monday declaring Clinton the presumptive nominee, there were fears that voters in New Jersey would stay home thinking their ballots wouldn’t matter. Jenkins said the opposite was true.

“We can’t look at the AP and say ‘shame on you’ for depressing voting numbers,” Jenkins said. “People were feeling like there was nobody in the election who was speaking for them and they distrusted the media so they see this election as a chance to make their voices heard.”