New Jersey voter turnout rose in 2016, as did signs of discontent
More voters, nearly 4 million, took part in last month’s election than any other in New Jersey history.
Of course, the state’s population is at its highest-ever level, as is its number of registered voters. But that’s always the case and doesn’t always guarantee new participation benchmarks: In the previous 12 presidential elections, the number of ballots cast increased six times and dropped six times.
With Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton historically unpopular, and New Jersey not a swing state where political parties concentrated get-out-the-vote efforts, it wasn’t clear how turnout would wind up.
“The competitiveness of the race, the high interest – I think everybody was exhausted by the time the election was over,” said Assemblyman Dan Benson, D-Mercer, who was on the Board of State Canvassers that certified the results Tuesday. “But everybody participated. I think that’s important.”
Some of those voters appeared interested in sending a message about their unhappiness with the major-party choices or traditional two-party system:
- An estimated 34,000 people cast write-in votes for president, roughly 1 in every 115 votes. That’s significantly higher than usual: In the 13 counties that publish write-in results from 2012 online, the number of write-in votes jumped fivefold, from a little over 4,000 four years ago to close to 21,000.
- Close to 124,000 people voted for third-party candidates, the most in New Jersey in 20 years. Libertarian Gary Johnson got 72,477 votes, almost 2 percent, after getting 21,045 in 2012. Green Party nominee Jill Stein got 37,772 votes, up from about 9,900 four years ago.
- Close to 50,000 people didn’t record votes in the presidential race. That’s hard to compare to past races, because write-in voters aren’t segregated, but the number of people skipping the race or writing in candidates went from around 37,000 in 2012 to over 83,000 this year.
The turnout of registered voters increased, from 66.8 percent in 2012 to 68.1 percent, though still finished at the second-lowest level on record for a presidential race.
The numbers from 2012 may have been lowered by Superstorm Sandy, which hit about a week before the election, dispersing residents as its destroyed homes and property.
Voter turnout rose by 3.9 percentage points in Monmouth County and 3.8 percentage points in Ocean County, two counties that saw significant damage from Sandy in 2012. Those were the third and fourth biggest jumps, behind a 6.1 percentage point increase in Hudson County, which also was hit by floods, and 4.5 percentage points in Sussex County, far inland but the site of many downed, large trees.
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who as secretary of state oversees the state Division of Elections, said she has “absolutely no objective basis” to explain why the number of ballots cast was almost 280,000 higher, or 7.6 percent, than four years ago. She said that’s for political scientists to determine.
“It’s a presidential election, and people like to vote in presidential elections. It was certainly a high-profile presidential election. I don’t need to tell anybody that. The pundits will say it was a different kind of election,” Guadagno said. “So it could be any of those, or none of those.”
“I think there was just great interest in that election, and people wanted to come out, and maybe some new people who hadn’t normally voted,” said Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex.
“I’m hoping that candidates in the future don’t think we have to be controversial or entertaining just for the sake of getting people out,” Greenstein said. “I wish they could come out because of the issues, but I really can’t say that many issues were hot in this election. It really came down, I think, a lot to the people, what they were saying and how much interest they generated.”
New Jersey voted for Clinton, the seventh consecutive election in which the state went with the Democrat. It’s now New Jersey’s longest streak of backing candidates from the same political party for president. It had voted Republican in six straight elections, from 1968 to 1988.
Clinton won with 2,148,278 votes. Excluding write-in votes, which aren’t part of the state’s official tally, Clinton received 55.5 percent of the vote. She had the second-highest vote total in state history, 67,144 fewer than Barack Obama in 2008.
President-elect Donald Trump received 1,601,933 votes, equal to 41.4 percent, excluding write-ins.
The constitutional amendment that would have allowed casinos in North Jersey officially suffered a bigger defeat than any previous ballot question, with 707,064 votes in favor, or 22.8 percent, and 2,400,081 opposed, or 77.2 percent. (More than 850,000 people skipped the ballot question.)
Those results line up with New Jerseyans’ current sentiments about casinos, as measured by a new Quinnipiac University Poll. Sixty-two percent say casino gambling has not been good for New Jersey, 60 percent said it has not been good for Atlantic City, and 79 percent oppose expanding it.
Still, backers of the idea have said they may try to put it back before voters in a couple of years.
“You can put anything on the ballot, but it lost this time, and according to Quinnipiac University numbers, the current poll, there’s no reason why it should succeed again. Or ever,” said poll assistant director Mickey Carroll. “… I suppose they could put it on the ballot, but why bother?”
The constitutional amendment that dedicates all gas-tax revenues to transportation wound up passing by 9 points, with 1,660,021 in favor, or 54.5 percent, and 1,385,321 opposed, or 45.5 percent. (Close to 912,000 voters skipped the public question.)
Assemblywoman Bettylou DeCroce, R-Morris, supported the proposal. Only Bergen and Essex counties were more supportive of the question than Morris County, where the proposal won by nearly 45,400 votes, with backing from more than 61 percent of voters.
“It’s key and very important to them to make sure that if they’re going to pay that extra tax – I call it a user fee. You can call it a gas tax, but it’s a user fee,” DeCroce said. “But if they’re going to be paying it, they want to make sure that it does go to roadways and the bridges.”
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