Republicans across the country reportedly fled the party in the days following the riot at the U.S. Capitol that led to the second impeachment of former President Donald Trump.
Not so in New Jersey, according to voter registration statistics and county officials.
In fact, the number of registered Republicans in the Garden State actually crept up by 355, or 0.02% between Jan. 1 and Feb. 1, while the number of Democrats declined. However, the statewide totals are skewed by a general cleanup of the voter rolls in Union County, which is predominantly Democratic. Excluding Union from the total, Republican registration rose by 0.23%, while the ranks of Democrats increased by a higher 0.35%.
NJ voters not following nationwide trends
Still, the increase in GOP registrations in New Jersey is noteworthy because of published reports that thousands of Republicans across the country left the GOP after the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters, white nationalists, followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory and others. The New York Times reported that more than 33,000 Republicans left the party in California, 12,000 in Pennsylvania and 10,000 in Arizona.
Several county clerks and election officials in New Jersey said they have not heard from any voters asking to leave the Republican Party post-election due to Trump’s actions or the insurrection at the Capitol.
New Jersey’s Republican Party was long known as moderate, but that changed during the Trump presidency. Assembly GOP Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union), a middle-of-the-road Republican and vocal Trump critic who had all but announced his run for governor, decided against seeking his party’s gubernatorial nomination this year because he said it would have been difficult to win while espousing moderate views.
The state’s registration rolls tend to increase incrementally each month because people renewing a driver’s license or conducting other business through a state motor vehicles agency are automatically registered to vote, unless they opt out. Still, state data shows declines in some counties for Democrats, Republicans, those not affiliated with either major party or all those categories between Jan. 1 and Feb. 1.
No deadlines for cleaning voter rolls
It can be hard to know why voter registrations declined in a given county, particularly after an election, because county officials are supposed to be cleaning up their voter rolls. This includes removing duplicate voter registrations; people whose mail-in ballots last year and sample ballots in most years come back undeliverable due to a move or a death; and those who have not voted in at least the past four years. But there is no deadline for doing so, which makes it hard to figure out which counties may have deleted voters from the rolls.
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said it is impossible to make any judgment on changes in party loyalty based solely on totals. What’s needed is to look at the numbers of voters purged, new registrants and party switches by county to get a full picture.
The cleanup of the voter rolls in Union County appears to be responsible for the statewide decline in Democratic registrations.
Union County did complete the cleaning of its voter rolls, said Nicole DiRado, the superintendent of elections there. State data shows the total number of registered voters dropped by more than 25,000, or 6.7%, since the first of the year, with the ranks of both major parties and the unaffiliated all decreasing.
“Voters who have not voted through two consecutive federal elections were deleted, as the statute provides,” DiRado said. “We cleaned up duplicates.”
DiRado said she had not heard of any changes related to post-election actions or events, saying, “Are we getting party affiliation changes? Not any more than after any other election.”
The Union County purge, coupled with smaller changes due to registration increases and voter switches, could be responsible for the data showing the GOP gained members while Democrats lost registrants. Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2-to-1 in Union County and while each party’s voter rolls declined by about 5%, that translates into many more Democrats lost than Republicans — 9,102 Democrats versus 2,891 Republicans. Union County was the only county in New Jersey with a sizeable decrease in its voter rolls.
Hunterdon County, which is staunchly Republican, saw the largest percentage decline in registered Republicans of any county other than Union: The GOP lost 0.5% or about 235 voters, while Democrats gained 0.1% or 33. But the county clerk and elections administrator both said that voters notoriously change party affiliation and they had not heard of anyone leaving the GOP because of the storming of the Capitol.
“We have a lot of people who habitually switch from unaffiliated and go back and forth,” said Mary Melfi, the longtime county clerk in Hunterdon. “I actually have voters that I keep their party affiliations on my desk because they vote every year and they declare and then I send them over.”
Jumping between parties
Because New Jersey’s primaries are closed, only those who are declared as Democrats or Republicans can vote in the primary. Depending on the hot race within their town or at the state or federal level, people may declare for one party to vote in a contested primary and then switch back to unaffiliated or to the opposite party the next year.
“I think with access to party changes through the Division of Motor Vehicles voter registration and the fact that you can do it online, people have easier access,” said Beth Thompson, supervisor of the Hunterdon County Board of Elections.
Melfi added that while there were some people who did not want to vote for Trump last year, a number of voters either switched to the GOP or remained Republican to vote in the contested Senate or congressional primaries and remained Republican until after the general election. About 1,600 more people voted in the Republican primary for the 7th Congressional District than voted for Trump. GOP nominee Tom Kean outpolled Trump in the general election in the county, although Kean lost districtwide to incumbent Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat.
Tyler Ladzinski, a spokesman for the New Jersey State Republican Committee, is taking the overall registration increase in the GOP as a sign that the momentum built during last year’s presidential and congressional races is continuing into this year as the party works to unseat Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat.
“We had more people sign up to volunteer for the GOP team than ever before last year, and are carrying that momentum into this year,” he said, “with growing numbers of Republicans and a strong, unified party focused on turning our state around.”