The Big Bump: Accounting for Higher Voter Turnout in NJ’s Primary Election

Mail-in ballots, increased enthusiasm for political process — what’s behind unexpected uptick in a year when state Assembly topped the ticket?

Growing use of mail-in ballots and a continuing increase in interest in the political process are likely the greatest catalysts for a large increase in Tuesday’s primary election turnout.

Preliminary data shows a more than 65 percent jump in the number of New Jerseyans who cast ballots in this year’s primary, compared with June 2015, the last time the Assembly topped the ticket. What’s more, voter registration rose 10.4 percent over the same period.

So far, an NJ Spotlight analysis of turnout data from the 21 counties found that nearly 459,000 votes had been counted statewide by the end of the day on Wednesday. Results from a number of voting districts were still outstanding, and mail-in ballots received by county election officials through today remain to be factored in, so turnout is bound to be even higher once all votes are tallied.

The overall turnout of 7.7 percent represents an increase of almost 3 percentage points over 2015, when comparing those who voted against the total number registered. That number can be misleading, however. Total registration includes unaffiliated voters, who can’t cast ballots in the primary — unless they declare for either the Democratic or the Republican party. Only 11 counties — slightly more than half — report turnout by party. But when total turnout is compared with voters registered with either major party in those 11 counties, it increases to more than 13 percent.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, attributed most of the increased turnout to a law signed last August by Gov. Phil Murphy that made it easier to vote by mail.

“One part of that is vote by mail,” Murray said. “Now that vote-by-mail ballots are automatically sent out to voters, we saw a huge bump in the number of people mailing them back and in turnout.”

Still on the low side

But even using the 13 percent figure for total turnout, participation in Tuesday’s primary was very low.

“It isn’t anything to truly brag about,” Murray said of the turnout.

For pro-democracy groups like the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, however, any increase is significant.

“We are encouraged to see more people voting,” said Jesse Burns, the league’s executive director.

Both she and Murray said that the increased civic interest sparked by the past presidential election also played a part in the higher primary turnout.

“There is an overall increase in voter enthusiasm to get out and vote as a consequence of the 2016 election,” said Murray.

Counting the counties

People voted in greater percentages than in the last year in which Assembly races topped the ballot in every county except Atlantic, where the decline of one-tenth of 1 percent could be reversed when all mail-in and provisional ballots are counted. Overall turnout was more than 5 percent higher this year than four years ago in both Somerset and Camden counties and it was almost 5 percent in Burlington.

Camden County, which typically leads the state in mail-in ballots cast, also achieved a first for New Jersey: More people voted by mail than in person. According to the county clerk’s unofficial results, there were 143 more ballots cast by mail than at a polling booth as of Tuesday night and that does not include the late mail-in ballots received Wednesday and today. Camden has always encouraged mail-in balloting, which used to be called absentee balloting, and leads the counties in the percent of votes cast by mail, but this is the first time more people voted by mail than in person.

“We have never really seen anything like that,” Murray said. “And there are still more ballots going to come in.”

The law Murphy signed last summer that expanded mail-in balloting required county clerks to automatically send a vote-by-mail ballot to all those who had voted by mail in the 2016 presidential election, unless they had opted out of getting one. It also allows people to receive a vote-by-mail ballot every year until they decline to receive future ballots.

That policy caused some problems in last November’s election, because thousands of people who received unwanted ballots in the mail did not return them — but then were allowed to cast only provisional ballots when they showed up at the polls.

Yet a record number of voters — more than 400,000 — cast ballots by mail last November. Mail-in ballots accounted for more than 12 percent of all votes.

Making it easy on the voters

Burns said that the increase in primary turnout is proof that laws that make it easier for people to vote wind up getting more people to vote.

“All these reforms really do make a difference,” she said. “We hope to see in the near future even more expansions of voting.”

Specifically, Burns called for New Jersey to enact a true early-voting program, as well as both online voter registration and same-day voter registration laws.

Both Burns and Murray said they expect to see higher turnout in the general election in November than in a typical off-year election.

“It’s really encouraging for what we might see in the November general election,” Burns said. “I’m hoping we see a much higher turnout.”

In addition to the use of mail-in ballots, Murray said he expected more people will vote due to “the enthusiasm factor,” as Democrats target Republican incumbents in several districts where the results were close two years ago. These include the 8th District centered in Burlington County, where Republican Assemblyman Joe Howarth became the first incumbent in a decade to lose his seat in a primary, the 25th in Morris County that has an open seat due to the retirement of Republican Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, and the 21st in Union County, which is the home of Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick.

In addition to the Democrats and Republicans nominated to run for Assembly in the state’s 40 districts, 16 independents have filed petitions. There is also one unexpired Senate term on the November ballot, in the southernmost 1st District, considered one of only two — the 2nd in Atlantic County is the other — in the state where the GOP may have a shot at unseating Democratic incumbents in November.

Our one-stop location for complete Primary 2019 news, analysis and district reports.

Go to NJTV News for all the contested primary results.

Colleen O’Dea’s analysis of the contested primaries.