Last month, the state Senate unanimously passed a bill that would permit the 86 cities and towns like Jersey City, which are currently required by law to hold nonpartisan municipal elections in May, to combine those elections with the more well-known general elections in November. Advocates of the legislation, which passed the Assembly Thursday and will head to the governor for his signature, say that it will increase voter turnout and allow municipalities to reduce costs.
“Allowing towns that hold May nonpartisan elections to move those elections to November without jeopardizing their nonpartisan status is a win for everyone,” says Middlesex County Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, Jr., a primary sponsor of the bill. “Municipalities win because they save money while being able to keep their unique form of government; voters and candidates win because the electorate is more engaged and more active in November elections.”
Unlike the general election held in November, candidates in nonpartisan municipal elections do not declare a party affiliation on the ballot. As such, there is no primary election to determine which candidate will run on a given party ticket. Candidates in nonpartisan elections may still publicize their party affiliations, however; in Jersey City, the Hudson County Democratic Organization is a fundraising powerhouse that exerts a great deal of influence on the outcomes of local elections.
Although the bill permits the change of election date, it does not require it. It remains to be seen if Jersey City, which is plagued by low turnout in municipal elections — less than 25 percent of registered voters cast ballots for last year’s mayoral and council race — will move its elections.
The initial Assembly bill, introduced in June 2008, included population restrictions that limited the scope of the bill to towns smaller than Jersey City. Officials from other municipalities have said that this was at the request of big-city mayors, including Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy.
But the Senate removed those provisions before approving the bill and returning it to the Assembly. And sure enough, none of the six Assembly members from Hudson County — the 31st, 32nd and 33rd legislative districts — voted for the revised bill Thursday, despite voting for it in 2008. (Assemblyman L. Harvey Smith did not vote at all on Thursday, the other five voted “no.”)
A Healy spokesperson says the mayor and his administration are still evaluating the legislation, but that they “do have some concerns.”
The City Council would have to approve such a change; Ward E councilman Steven Fulop says he’ll introduce an ordinance to do just that later this month.
“This will not only save Jersey City significant cash, but it makes sense. It is challenging to get the people to come out for each election, when they are held at incongruent times,” Fulop says. “We should move the elections to the people. I have been watching this legislation for the past year and believe it could fundamentally change how cities like mine are run. This is crucial for Jersey City to reach beyond the political machine to have a more representative election.”
The Downtown councilman may end up being the lone wolf here if Healy’s “concerns” lead him to oppose the move. But Fulop, who expects the administration to fight him on this, claims any opposition is calculated for political gain.
“Healy's goal is to spend money and suppress voter turnout,” Fulop says.
The good-government advocacy organization One Jersey City also supports moving the date to November.
“Reducing the number of election days in a calendar year is something that our coalition supports 100 percent,” says Dan Levin, who heads One Jersey City and ran for mayor in 2009. In addition to the November general and the May nonpartisan elections, Jersey City also holds a yearly April election for the Board of Education, a June primary election, and June runoff elections if the results of the May election require it.
Having so many elections wears down the public, making them less likely to vote at all, according to consolidation advocates like state Sen. Barbara Buono, one of the bill’s sponsors. “We need to consolidate elections in order to reduce voter fatigue, connect with the public and reduce the cost of our nearly perpetual election cycle in the Garden State,” she says.
Just how much money could Jersey City expect to save if the election dates were changed? City Clerk Robert Byrne says he’s not 100 percent sure, but that he estimates the mayoral/council election costs the city “about $350,000.”
Meanwhile, one statewide good-government group says it is concerned about the bill.
“[It] puts nonpartisan municipalities in danger of political influence,” says Heather Taylor, communications director of Citizens’ Campaign. She says that the potential for nonpartisan local candidates to piggyback on party campaign literature and pool fundraising efforts creates a “concern” that local issues that have traditionally been nonpartisan could become politicized along party lines.
Citizens’ Campaign also criticizes the bill for allowed municipalities to make the change via legislation instead of a public vote.
“In any other instance when you do a change of government, it goes to a referendum of the people,” Taylor says.
But Candice Howard, Assemblyman Diegnan’s chief of staff, says the process will be just as open.
“Any citizen that’s concerned about it has the opportunity to voice their opinion” to their council leaders or at meetings, Candice Howard says. “[It's] an open forum.”
As for the undue influence of political parties on nonpartisan elections, Levin admits that’s “a concern,” but he points out that since Jersey City is essentially a one-party town, “it’s not as much of an issue” as it might be in other municipalities.
Ingrid Reed, director of the New Jersey Project at the Rutgers University-based Eagleton Institute of Politics, agrees.
“Even though I recognize that party affiliation and party influence may be more prominent,” she says, she supports the date switch because it will lead to “more participation, more attention paid to the races, [and] more potential for debates in the campaign season.”