Preliminary data from New Jersey’s county clerks shows turnout in this year’s general election exceeded that of the last presidential election, counter to the recent trend of declining turnouts.
An analysis of voter turnout data from the state’s 21 county clerks’ election websites shows 67.3 percent of New Jersey’s nearly 5.8 million registered voters cast ballots on November 8. That figure is likely to rise somewhat when 14 outstanding election districts — one in Camden County and 13 in Essex — and provisional ballots in a dozen counties are finally counted. Thursday was the date by which county clerks were to send official election results to the secretary of state, but only five counties — Atlantic, Mercer, Salem, Sussex and Union — had posted official results on their websites as of yesterday afternoon. The state Board of Canvassers is to meet by December 6 to certify the election results.
The turnout so far is 1/2 a percentage point higher than for the 2012 presidential election. Turnout is typically much higher in presidential election years than in years when the governor, US Senate or legislative seats top the ballot. In 2013, when both the governor’s and a US Senate seat led the ticket, 40 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Last year, when the state Assembly was the highest seat up for a vote, the turnout was just 22 percent.
While a higher turnout would be welcome, it may not be much to brag about, since the 2012 election was affected by Hurricane Sandy. A post-Sandy survey by the U.S. Census Bureau concluded that at least some of the lower voter turnout was influenced by the storm’s aftermath — with confusion over changed polling locations due to flooding and power outages, and the dislocation of residents from damaged or dark homes. And a March 2014 study in the online journal Environmental Hazards concluded that the storm was responsible for the lower turnout, and “Specifically, the proportion of a municipality covered by storm surge was found to be influential in reducing New Jersey turnout.” The 2012 turnout was 66.8 percent, down significantly from 72.7 percent in 2008.
Regardless, Krista Jenkins, a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University and executive director of its PublicMind poll, said a turnout in the high 60-percent range was a good one, given voting trends and the specifics of this election, in particular.
“That’s pretty high, especially considering this was not being considered a competitive state, with the exception of the 5th (Congressional) District,” Jenkins said. In the 5th District in northwest Jersey, incumbent Republican Scott Garrett lost his seat to Democratic challenger Joshua Gottheimer.
“As for the two ballot questions, I would not call them especially mobilizing,” she continued. “Given that, I would have thought the state would have mirrored the national trend.”
The United States Elections Project tracks voter turnout by comparing ballots cast against not the number of registered voters, but the number of people over age 18 eligible to vote. With incomplete results, it reports a turnout of 58.1 percent for this year’s election, down just slightly from 58.6 percent in 2012. By that measure, 62.2 percent of the voting-age eligible cast ballots in 2012, compared with almost 64.1 percent based on the data reported so far this year.
Meanwhile, a new report from the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University contends that teaching civics in college could boost political participation and increase the amount of knowledge Americans have about government.
The report cites some disturbing statistics:
* in 2015, more than half of New Jersey adults could not name even one Supreme Court justice and only 29 percent knew that freedom of speech was one of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment to the US Constitution;
* just 38 percent of adults in the United States could name all three branches of government in 2011 and a third of Americans could not name any of the branches;
* the United States ranked 139th in voter participation out of 172 democracies in 2007.
“It seems that the prospects are dim for the kind of vibrant and active citizenry that is critical for a thriving American democracy,” said Jennifer Forestal, a Stockton assistant professor of political science. “However, civic learning can reverse this trend.”
Turnout this year in New Jersey was highest in Hunterdon County, where three-quarters of those registered voted. Essex County had the lowest turnout — 57 percent — but that is likely to rise when all the votes are reported.
According to the unofficial total so far, Democrat Hillary Clinton is beating Donald Trump in New Jersey by about 526,000 votes, taking 54.8 percent of ballots cast to his 41.1 percent. She was expected to win New Jersey, a reliably blue state in presidential elections since 1992 and in U.S. Senate elections back to 1976. She won 12 counties, compared with nine for Trump.