Slightly more New Jerseyans voted in last week’s gubernatorial election than four years earlier, although the turnout percentage is likely to be a little lower than in 2013.
An analysis of near-complete voter turnout data from the state’s 21 county clerks found that nearly 2.2 million people cast ballots for governor, state legislators, two statewide public questions, and a host of county, local, and school offices. That’s nearly 11,000, or 0.5 percent, more than the number who voted four years ago, when outgoing Gov. Chris Christie won a lopsided victory over Democrat Barbara Buono, a state senator at the time.
But because voter registration rolls are higher now than they were four years ago, the percentage of those eligible who voted was slightly lower this year than in 2013. More than 38 percent of registered voters cast ballots this year, compared with nearly 40 percent four years ago.
Both the number who voted and the turnout percentage will likely wind up somewhat higher when all the results are finally certified: NJ Spotlight’s analysis included eight official results, eight more with all votes seemingly counted but not yet certified, four that do not yet include provisional ballots, and one where turnout was estimated based on the total number who voted for governor. Still, it’s unlikely that those as-yet uncounted votes will wind up pushing the turnout percentage higher than in 2013.
Turnout in decline
Statewide voter turnout has been declining steadily for the most part over at least the past two decades — a notable exception was a slight increase in last year’s presidential election, 68.1 percent in 2016 compared with 66.8 percent in 2012, but that may be an anomaly as the continuing chaos from superstorm Sandy likely depressed turnout that year.
But in about half of the counties, more voters cast ballots this year than in 2013. And seven of the 11 counties that had higher turnouts are ones with either Democratic registration majorities or where Democrats outnumber Republicans.
Democrats to the polls
The Democrats, hungry to get back the governorship and still smarting from last year’s presidential election results, ran a coordinated campaign at the state, county, and local levels that helped boost turnout in traditional Democratic counties. Hudson County, which has the greatest proportion of Democrats of any county in New Jersey, also had the largest increase in voter turnout. About 12 percent more people voted in Hudson this year than did four years ago, which equals a 4-point increase in the turnout percentage.
“It’s a result of a confluence of events,” said Derek Roseman, a spokesman for Democrat Phil Murphy’s campaign.
Murphy, the governor-elect who captured nearly 1.2 million votes to beat Lieutenant Gov. Kim Guadagno by more than 14 points, had spent both time and money building up the party around the state. And there has been a “groundswell of energy at the grassroots level” for progressive causes and candidates since last November’s election, Roseman added.
In Essex County, where turnout was more than 4 percent higher this year than in 2013, Roseman said “a lot of folks who are African-American, seeing the potential of the first African-American woman in Sheila Oliver being elected to statewide office, generated a lot of energy, as well.”
And the Democrats ran a “very coordinated and organized campaign at all levels,” Roseman added.
“We are pleased by the work of our 2017 Victory campaign, which was designed to help mobilize voters in support of our gubernatorial ticket and Democratic candidates up and down the ballot in New Jersey,” said John Currie, chairman of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee. “Obviously, it was a successful collaboration between our county parties, local candidates, and the Murphy for Governor campaign.”
Other groups, including Planned Parenthood and labor unions, also worked to turn out the vote in Democratic areas.
The push is a big contrast from 2013, when Democratic party bosses by and large conceded the governorship to the then-popular Christie and gave Buono little support, financially or otherwise.
Some Republican counties did vote in larger numbers than four years ago as well. Hunterdon County had the second-largest increase in turnout in the state — 6.6 percent. The mostly wealthy Republican bastion typically registers the highest or second-highest turnout of all New Jersey counties and this year was no exception — 48 percent of those registered went to the polls, a greater proportion than anywhere else in the state.
Still, many would like to try to do more to boost turnout in the state. Lawmakers have pushed for a number of efforts — among them, allowing 17 year olds to vote in a primary if they will turn 18 before the next general election, expanded voting by mail, and allowing people to register to vote closer to the date of an election. Christie has balked at all those that arrived on his desk.
Currie called for the next Legislature to do more to make it easier to vote, saying, “Although we are proud that turnout increased, it is time for the Legislature to pass reforms that make voting more accessible so that this year’s participation rates become a new floor, not a new ceiling,”