Much has been said and written since Tuesday’s election about Gov. Chris Christie being re-elected in a “landslide” and voters giving him a “mandate” to govern.
But fewer than four out of 10 registered adults voted and not quite 38 percent cast a ballot in the governor’s race – some even skipped it, and voted only for other offices or ballot questions. Of the state’s total adult population of more than 6.8 million, little more than three in 10 chose a candidate for governor.
The estimated turnout of 38.8 percent was the lowest turnout for any November general election in which a statewide office – governor or U.S. senator – topped the ballot, according to Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
"The turnout was incredibly disappointing,” said Kerry Butch, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.
She cited “voter fatigue” as one possible cause of the low turnout. Due to the death last June of Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Christie’s decision to fill the Senate seat in a special election, rather than the regular general election three days ago, New Jerseyans were called to the polls three times in four months: a special U.S. Senate primary in June, the special Senate general election three weeks ago and the regular general election this week.
Murray agreed, citing voter fatigue as the primary reason for a turnout currently 8 points below the 47 percent turnout in the last governor’s election in 2009, when Christie unseated Jon Corzine. With still 26 precincts to be logged – 25 precincts in Essex County, which is roughly 4.5 percent of the total in that county, and one precinct in Hudson – data reported by the county clerks shows fewer than 2.14 million people voted, a turnout of almost 38.8 percent of the more than 5.5 million registered. About 97.5 percent of them, or nearly 2.1 million, cast a ballot for governor.
Turnout varied widely among the counties, with the largest turnouts in the three of the smallest counties and vice-versa.
Cape May was the only county where half of the registered voters cast ballots. It has the second-smallest voter registration, at about 68,000. It also had hotly contested legislative races, including one in which a Democratic incumbent, Assemblyman Nelson Albano, was unseated.
Meanwhile, not quite 30 percent of Hudson County voters cast ballots. Hudson is the only county where more than half of all registered voters – more than 350,000 -- are Democrats, and the “blue” party easily won all legislative seats. Hudson and Essex are also the only two counties in which Sen. Barbara Buono beat Christie.
Brigid Callahan Harrison, professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, disagreed about blaming voter burnout for the low turnout. She cited other reasons, including numerous polls that showed Christie far ahead of Buono, a Democratic state senator representing Middlesex County.
“If a voter was committed enough to go to the polls to vote for either (Cory) Booker or (Steve) Lonegan, they most likely would feel compelled to turnout in an election in which the governor and the entire state Legislature is up for grabs,” Harrison said. “Lack of a competitive election has been demonstrated to tamp down participation. In this case, some Christie voters would feel that their vote was unnecessary and Buono voters would feel that it was a lost cause, resulting in a portion of both groups staying home.”
Murray, whose last pre-election poll had predicted Christie would win by 20 points, agreed that the “certainty” of the governor’s re-election was a factor that kept voters home. Unofficial vote totals have Christie winning by 22.2 points, which is within the margin of error of the Monmouth poll. But Murray also blamed Buono’s lack of a compelling message.
“Buono never hit on an issue that challenged Christie or got voters interested in the race,” he said.
Harrison also cited a factor that Buono addressed in her concession speech: a lack of support from the major Democratic Party bosses in a state where the “party machines still play a large role” in mobilizing voters.
“In this case, the Democratic bosses were backing Christie, but also wanted to ensure that their Democratic legislative candidates won,” said Harrison. “Therefore, they chose not to mobilize some of the strongest traditional ‘down the line’ Democrats, instead focusing on voters they could convince to split their tickets.”
With voter turnout on the decline for the last several years, Butch said nothing less than a shakeup in the election system is needed.
“It is time to engage voters in different ways - and not through partisan politics,” she said. “We need early education about the process, the citizen’s role in the process, and why voting is a responsibility that must be taken very seriously. We also need more issue-focused information. The more solid issue oriented information provided, the more engaged the people will feel. And last, but not least, we need to make the polls more accessible. It is time for in-person early voting in our state. This disturbing trend is a rallying cry for the league."