Fewer New Jerseyans voted in the June primary than in the last gubernatorial primary four years ago, even as candidates raised record amounts of money.

Recently posted data from the state Division of Elections shows about 762,000 Democrats and Republicans went to the polls or used a mail-in ballot in the primary, some 24,000 fewer than the number who voted in 2017. This year, about 19% of partisan registrants cast ballots, compared with 24% four years ago, an NJ Spotlight News analysis of the data shows.

Turnout in the state has been trending downward for decades but increased in 2017, when both parties had contested primaries and the governor’s seat was open as Republican Chris Christie was ending his second term. This year’s turnout percentage was higher than in 2013, when slightly less than 17% of registered voters turned out, but didn’t quite reach 2009’s 19.1%.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, called 2017’s uptick an “anomaly” that was largely a reaction to Christie’s exit. He left office as the state’s least popular governor with a Rutgers Eagleton Poll saying only 13% of New Jerseyans had a favorable view of him. Murray said this year’s turnout, then, was larger than expected.

“The 2021 D (Democrats) number, while off the hot pace of 2017, is still significantly higher than anyone would expect for an incumbent race without even token opposition on the ballot,” Murray said in an email. “If you take all these variables into account — plus the pandemic effect and greater mail balloting — you still have to look at 2021 primary turnout as being relatively high historically … Framing 2021 turnout as some sort of fatigue-based dropoff from 2020 or even from 2017 is comparing apples to iguanas.”

“In absolute terms, our primary turnout remains abysmal — but that has been a longstanding trend,” Murray added.

Trump drives turnout

Dan Cassino, a professor of government and politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the director of the FDU Poll, said the 2016 election of President Donald Trump also drove turnout in the gubernatorial primary the following year.

“In 2017, the wake of the 2016 election and the unrelenting focus on politics spurred a lot of turnout: Democrats were voting in order to send a message to Donald Trump, even though he wasn’t on the ballot, a pattern that continued, especially in New Jersey, in the 2018 midterms,” Cassino said. “Today, there isn’t any such motivation. In our last statewide, we actually tested whether Trump was driving votes in the 2021 gubernatorial election, and we were surprised to find that priming respondents to think about him didn’t have any impact at all.”

Cassino added that the “power given to county bosses and county committees means that much of what’s theoretically being decided in the primary has already been worked out behind closed doors.” That means there are few contested races on the ballot, and even fewer in which the contests are even close.

“The lack of any real competitive primaries always means lower turnout,” agreed Matt Hale, a professor of political science at Seton Hall University. “Why vote when the outcome is predetermined?”

Presidential election years usually draw out more voters than gubernatorial years, even though New Jersey’s primary is so late in the cycle that the nominees typically have already been decided. The polarizing presence of Donald Trump on the 2016 and 2020 ballots magnified that trend and brought voters to the polls in droves: 1.39 million Democrats and Republicans voted in June 2016 and 1.47 million cast ballots in the July 2020 primary that was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hale said it would have been unrealistic to expect such a large turnout last month.

People want a break

“The Trump presidency was impossible to ignore and tune out, which is what most people want to do with politics, so the low 2021 turnout numbers may indicate people just want and need a break from politics,” he said.

New Jersey consciously scheduled its statewide elections in years opposite federal elections, but that has played a role in damping turnout, which is lowest in years when only the Legislature tops balloting.

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“The fact that we have statewide elections in years when we don’t have federal elections is designed to insulate our state politics from national trends; the problem is that national politics are a lot more visible, so when there aren’t federal races on the ballot, people just don’t pay as much attention,” Cassino said. “The fact that New Jersey doesn’t really have its own media markets plays a role as well: Much of our TV news is coming from sources that aren’t primarily interested in New Jersey.”

New Jersey also holds a closed primary, meaning registered Democrats can only vote for Democrats, Republicans for GOP candidates, and while unaffiliated voters can declare a party on Election Day in order to vote in the primary, few do. Some have suggested the state could boost turnout by opening the primaries to any voter.

Finally, Hale said, the continuing presence of the coronavirus in the state may have influenced turnout. Unlike last year’s primary, which was conducted entirely by mail-in ballot, all polling places were open this year. Still, Murphy didn’t lift the state’s mask mandate until 11 days before the primary, and many stores continued to require patrons to wear masks beyond that date.

“You can’t disregard COVID,” Hale said. “While we were clearly coming out of the pandemic, it still wasn’t normal, and I am sure some people stayed home.”

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