No one believes their vote counts — trouble for democracy in NJ (Analysis)
The vast majority of New Jersey residents do not vote.
You would have to go back to 1997 to see voter turnout in a gubernatorial election above 50%, according to the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission. In the 1949 gubernatorial election, turnout was 76%. Today, it’s hard to even imagine a voter participation rate even close to that.
The highest we have seen this century is 49% in 2001, and turnout has been steadily declining ever since.
Why? In countless interviews and casual conversations with New Jersey residents, there seems to be the overwhelming belief that an individual vote does not matter. Not anymore, anyway.
The first election I covered for New Jersey 101.5 was in 1993. Three years earlier, then-Gov. Jim Florio signed a series of bills hiking taxes nearly $3 billion — with key votes late at night, after most of the press corps had gone home and as most of New Jersey slept. As the public became aware, taxpayers revolted.
In early 1990 the Asbury Park Press purchased a low performing Trenton radio station called Kix 101-and-a-half. It was rebranded into a station you might have heard of a few months later, and helped launch a tax revolt. The end result was an unprecedented election that swept the Democratic majority from New Jersey and ushered in a decade of Republican control.
Turnout in 1993 was 65%. Voters were angry, and they showed it by showing up to cast ballots. Our elected officials had a healthy fear of the voter.
Not anymore. Over the last three decades, elected officials have systematically gerrymandered the boundaries of election districts to all but eliminate competitiveness in all but a handful of races. As voter turnout numbers have continued to shift downward, candidates can effectively pander to a much smaller base, without fear of there being enough opposition voters to bounce them from office.
The end result is an entrenched political establishment that is difficult to topple, unless large numbers of voters decide to engage. How to accomplish that is the single biggest vexation for both fresh non-establishment candidates and seasoned political operatives.
In the 2017 New Jersey election, 3.5 million eligible voters did not vote. More people did not vote than did. Few of the operatives I spoke with would go on the record for this article, but all lamented a voter turnout of 39% in the last gubernatorial election.
Adam Geller, CEO of National Research Inc and a longtime New Jersey pollster, says voter motivation is the biggest challenge of any race in New Jersey.
“Negative used to work,” he says, “but not so much now.”
Voters have gotten so accustomed to negative attack ads, they just tune them out. Geller (who did polling for Donald Trump) says New Jersey is also the victim of the oversaturation of national media fixated on the Trump presidency.
“News about (Gov.) Phil Murphy and current legislative races hasn’t penetrated the consciousness of voters the same as news about Trump. Voters in New Jersey can get overwhelmed by national political news," Geller says.
Geller and other political operatives agree cutting through the national cacophony of political dreck is challenging. A recent Monmouth University Poll found the number of voters without an opinion of Murphy was rising.
“People don’t have enough information to have an opinion,” Geller speculates. Geller also noted there are few surveys that take opinions of non-voters and ask them why they don’t vote, but says he has heard enough callers to New Jersey 101.5 to surmise it is because they don’t believe they matter.
New Jersey has an election this November that will determine the make-up of the General Assembly. Turnout could be as low as 15% of eligible voters, Geller and other pollsters I spoke to suggested. That means close to 5 million New Jerseyans will not vote.
During election coverage in 2001, longtime Home News Tribune Columnist Rick Malwitz told me, “I fear we will one day hold an election, and no one will come.” Unless someone can find a way to make millions of New Jersey voters feel like they matter, that day may arrive soon.
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