What does it take to get New Jersey voters to vote?
Just 41% of registered voters cast ballots in this year's November elections, one of the lowest midterm turnouts in a century. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)
In the closing weeks of this year’s election campaign, New Jerseyans faced a barrage of campaign ads warning us about inflation putting a dent in our wallets, Republicans seeking to restrict abortion access, out-of-control crime making our daily lives more dangerous, and Donald Trump and his acolytes threatening the very foundation of our democracy.
Yet final numbers from New Jersey’s election officials show just 41% of registered voters cast ballots this year. In eight counties, turnout was in the 30s, and in one county, in the 20s. Dismal.
If the stakes of the 2022 midterms weren’t enough to drive voters to cast ballots, what would do it?
One problem, I think, is too many voters have seen power seesaw between parties in the last 20 years without it changing their day-to-day lives measurably. If your life continues on its way under GOP and Democratic control, why bother choosing between the two?
Another issue is the most-important-election-of-our-lifetimes shtick. Going back as long as I can remember, every election has been dubbed the most important of our lifetime by someone, and that kind of warning leads to diminishing returns. They can’t all be.
But most importantly, New Jersey’s powers that be created so many non-competitive House districts, voters know the winners are all-but-decided before one ballot is cast. Democrats made matters worse for 2022 when they created a district map that made all but one district safer for the incumbent party.
If you see your House rep regularly winning by 10 or more points, you probably start to wonder whether your one vote matters.
Look at the 8th District, where Democrat Robert Menendez Jr. had two big advantages: He was running in one of the most heavily Democratic districts in the state, and his GOP opponent was a guy who didn’t bother campaigning. The result: 29% turnout in Hudson County, where most of the district’s voters live.
Meanwhile, over in the 7th District, where the matchup between Rep. Tom Malinowski and Tom Kean Jr. was the one truly competitive House contest in the state, turnout in five of the district’s six counties was above the state average, and in one, Hunterdon, it was 57%.
So that’s the why. Now, how to make it better?
I talked to two women who have studied this — Jesse Burns, executive director for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, and Henal Patel, law and policy director for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice — who say same-day voter registration and increased promotion of early voting are ways to boost turnout.
Patel said she couldn’t count the number of calls her organization receives every election from voters who didn’t know they missed the voter registration deadline, or residents who became U.S. citizens after that deadline, or people who made a good-faith effort to be registered but weren’t because of a bureaucratic snafu. All of these people should have been able to vote, she said.
“We turn away voters every election,” she said. “We need same-day voter registration, there’s no way around it.”
Burns agrees on same-day voter registration, but added that a lack of engagement by some candidates — fueled, no doubt, by the absence of true competition — left many voters feeling like they aren’t a part of this process.
“What we really saw, particularly this cycle, was a complete refusal of some candidates to do anything that wasn’t manufactured, crafted, social media responses,” she said. “They weren’t engaging with the press in the same way, they weren’t participating in forums in the same way, they just were not engaged in the community in a way that is necessary for members of the community to feel like there’s a reason to come out and vote.”
I have no doubt Burns and Patel are right about how to get more voters interested in casting ballots. What worries me is: a) same-day voter registration appears to have no chance of succeeding under current legislative leadership; and b) incumbent House members who benefit from low voter interest probably have no interest in seeking out low-propensity voters. So two big ideas to turn out more voters have gigantic roadblocks in front of them.
I don’t know what the solutions are to convince voters to cast ballots when the presidential race isn’t at the top of the ticket. But I know Burns was right when she told me voters are giving up their own power when they choose to sit out an election.
“Folks need to recognize is when they don’t vote, the people with the most power win,” she said.
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Terrence T. McDonald