“Terrible. It’s sad that only 22 percent of our citizens turned out to vote,” said Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex. “My mother always used to say to me, ‘If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.’ Does that mean four out of five people in New Jersey can’t complain about the government they have?”
The 1.17 million ballots cast were the fewest in a New Jersey general election since 1947 – a time when the state had 2.2 million registered voters, compared with 5.4 million today.
Turnout was expected to be low, in part because the state Assembly, rather than a statewide office, was atop the ballot for the first time since 1999. That year, turnout was 31 percent. Nearly 220,000 fewer votes were cast this year than in 1999, despite the addition of almost 957,000 more registered voters.
“I think there’s a cynicism throughout the state that nothing can get done. You can see in the election right now for president in the Republican Party, who are leading? People who are outsiders,” said Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, R-Morris.
“They don’t trust their elected officials. And if they don’t trust their elected officials, no matter what comes out of their mouth, what good is it to vote? They’re going to tell you one thing and either not do anything or do something else,” Pennacchio said. “We’ve got to get past that cynicism. Leaders have to step up to the plate. More than that, they’ve got to be honest and transparent and they’ve got to lead.”
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadgano, who as secretary of state headed the meeting of the Board of State Canvassers where the election results were certified, called the turnout percentage awful.
Guadagno said that was true in part because there are so few competitive districts under the current legislative map. She noted counties in the hotly contested South Jersey districts had above-average turnouts, such as 30 percent in Atlantic County and 32 percent in Cape May County.
“You can turn it around by having people have a contested election,” Guadagno said. “Right now, I think the turnout was low because there wasn’t a contested election. Everyone can argue all of the other potential issues, but I think the turnout was low because there weren’t any races. Where they were races, there was a huge turnout.”
Democrats gained four seats in the Assembly in last month’s election and will hold 52 of the 80 Assembly seats when the next session begins in January.
The new Democratic Assembly members include Bruce Land of Vineland, Eric Houghtaling of Neptune Township, Joann Downey of Freehold Township and Andrew Zwicker of Princeton.
Zwicker won in the 16th District by 78 votes over Assemblywoman Donna Simon, R-Hunterdon, who as a member of the Board of State Canvassers cast the motion to accept the election results Tuesday.
Democrats said one way state government can help reverse the decline in voter turnout would be passing voting-reform legislation dubbed the “Democracy Act” that Gov. Chris Christie vetoed. Among other things, it would allow early voting during the two weeks before an election at some polling places.
“We on the Democratic side have been working to expand access to the ballot, to reduce barriers to the ballot,” said Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr., D-Burlington. “We do so because we think it’s good for our constitutional and democratic system but also because it should increase participation in our election, which will make the work product if you will of government better.”
“We have to find ways to stimulate turnout. For example, the ‘Democracy Act’ can make it easier to get people to the polls and make it easier with same-day voter registration,” Smith said. “And then we’ve got to get them excited to vote. That’s the hardest part.”