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Eagleton Institute of Politics
Eagleton Institute of Politics



published in The Times, Trenton, NJ, 07/06/06

A Vaction from elections

by Ingrid Reed

July is really the beginning of vacation - taking a break for two months from school, work, regular meetings, organized team sports and community fund­ raisers. It also means that New Jerseyans get a break from elections.

Let me remind you that we had a little rest in November 2005 after electing a new governor in an off year or odd-year election. Unlike most states that hold elections only in even-numbered years, New Jerseyans never have a year with out elections.

No sooner had 2006 begun than elections started up again - monthly, except in March. Here is the list: in February to vote for fire district board members and ap­prove their budgets in municipall­ ties that have these districts; in April to vote for school boards and approve their budgets; in May to select mayors and council mem­bers in nonpartisan local elections; in June for the primary election, is and a week later, run-off elections in the nonpartisan municipal elec­tions. Not on the list are special aso elections to approve school bond issues.

Why should we care that we are overwhelmed with reasons to go to the polls if so few people vote in these elections and many of them involve relatively few municipalities? There are two big reasons: The elections are to inefficient and dramatically ineffective.

First, the efficiency issue to organize an election costs a lot of money and uses lots of staff time. The process is complex In every one of the 21 counties, whether anyone shows up to vote or not, a whole series of tasks must be performed such as certifying to candidates, making up and printing ballots, mailing them to we registered voters, renting polling on places, hiring poll workers, putting the ballot on voting machines, moving the machines in and out of storage, and, of course, counting the votes. Repeating the process five times in six months is certainly inefficient.

Second, the effectiveness issue. The series of elections ftom February to July simply does not and cannot capture the publics attention and generate interest in going to the polls. Interest in elections is assumed to come ftorn who is running, what office is being filled and what issues are at the forefront. But it is more complicated than that. Participation depends greatly on getting the word out to voters about elections - from campaigns and candidates, the media, and friends and neighbors. Custom and routine help voters, but these elections often take place at unfamiliar polling places and at unfamilar times.

While voter turnout in New Jersey, except for presidential elections, has been declining the number of voters who go to the polls in the spring series is so. small as to question whether public choices are legitimate if so few people are involved in making decisions - especially if the way we organize and schedule the elections actually contributes to discouraging participation.

The litany of complaints about these dysfunctional elections comes up every spring when they take place - and less than 15 percent of the voters show up. Now there appears to be a chance for change.

Speaker of the Assembly Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) has introduced legislation to move fire district and school board elections to the well-established November election and drop the requirement to have voters approve the budgets except when the increase is greater than a pre-determined Umit. The question of how to fix the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of these elections will be posed to the legislators. This surely is a time to come up with a solution. A continuing tight budget picture is surely the time to seize the opportunity to decrease spending by consolidating elections, Increasing voter participation in making important decisions that affect local services might be appealing enough for our legislators to bravely take on reform.

Maybe one of our legislators would wisely amend the proposed. legislation to eliminate the June run-off in municipal elections by permitting voters to rank their choices in the May elections. Championed by the editors of The Times of Trenton, the process known as instant runoff elections has been successfally used in a number of cities around the country. Our new voting machines should be easy to program to permit this efficient and easy way to conduct municipal nonpartisan elections that usually have more than two candidates contending for a position. As A stands now, when candidates don't garner 50 percent plus one votes, a second election to select ftm the top vote-getters takes place. If voters can rank their preferences in the May elections, the usually poorly attended runoff election can be eliminated.

For now, let's enjoy the upcoming vacation break. Maybe next year, relief from too many elections wont be one of the reasons we are looking forward to the always welcome change of routine that comes with summer.