TRENTON — This past Tuesday's elections in New Jersey are likely to make history, according to a prominent pollster — but not in a way that would make Garden State politicians proud.
Only 20.8 percent of registered voters in the state turned up to the polls on Election Day, according to a preliminary analysis by Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
That would shatter the previous record for the the lowest voter turnout New Jersey has ever seen in a statewide election.
The state won't release an official tally until next month, and Murray said the number could increase to 22 or even 23 percent.
But that would still be lower than 24.5 percent that voted when Cory Booker was elected to the U.S. Senate in a special election — a vote that was held on a Wednesday in October.
It would also be multiple percentage points lower than the 27 percent that voted in 2011, when state Senate and Assembly seats were the largest offices up for grabs — the state record for the lowest turnout in a regularly scheduled statewide election.
The main reason for the lack of interest this year? Races for the state Assembly — the lower house of the state Legislature — topped the ticket for the first time in 16 years. And years without a presidential, governor's, or even congressional race to bump up attention often draw low numbers.
New Jersey is one of only four states that hold elections in which state Legislature seats top the ballot every few years. Virginia, Mississippi, and Kentucky are the other three.
"Turnout is always highest when president is on the ticket," Murray said. "The second highest is when the governor's office is on the ticket."
On top of that, experts say, the majority of Assembly races Tuesday weren't competitive — largely the result of redistricting that happens every 10 years.
Still, Tuesday's turnout was much lower than the last time the Assembly topped the ticket — in 1999 — when 31 percent of New Jersey's voters cast ballots.
Murray said voter turnout has been dropping nationwide in recent years.
"There's just a sense that there's not a cost benefit of voting — that it's not worth it to take the time to vote," he said. "In New Jersey, there are very few truly competitive races. Even if you go back to the primaries, there were only a handful of challenges. Voters never have a true choice."
The low turnout, though, actually could have led to at least one upset. Democratic challenger Andrew Zwicker is leading incumbent Republican Assemblywoman by a few dozen votes in a race in central Jersey's 16th District that is still too close to call. Provisional ballots are still being counted, and a recount could follow.
If Zwicker wins, it would be the first time a Democrat would represent the district — which includes parts of Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, and Somerset counties — in the state Legislature since the district was created in 1973.
"If there was a much larger turnout," said Ben Dworkin, a political science professor at Rider University, "it might not be as close."