Calling all voters: Enough already! Multiple N.J. election days dampen turnout

Posted: June 08, 2006

If it weren't for the note on his bedroom floor reminding him to vote this week, former Gov. Dick Codey admits, even he might have skipped his civic duty.

The Senate president joined just 7 percent of registered voters at the primary polls Tuesday when he voted at 7 p.m. in West Orange, N.J. - where, he said, he was "shocked there was someone else in the room."

In other states, such dismal turnout might be called voter apathy.

In New Jersey, it could be voter fatigue.

Pennsylvania voters, like those in much of the country, are accustomed to a spring primary and a November general election.

But Garden State voters are called to the polls six times a year - and those don't include the four dates when school boards schedule bond referendums.

February is for fire district elections, April for school board elections, May for nonpartisan elections, and June for the primary and next week's nonpartisan runoff elections. November, of course, is for the general election, when as many as 73 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

In 2008, the state will add another election - a presidential-only primary the final Tuesday in February.

"In New Jersey, we just lurch from one election to another," said Ted Bradley, superintendent of Gloucester County's Board of Elections. "We haven't even scratched the surface yet this year."

Election overload is as quintessentially New Jersey as jug handles and full-service gas, said Jon Shure, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank in Trenton.

"New Jersey takes its politics so seriously that for better or worse, it goes to extreme efforts to separate votes for one office from another. They don't want fire district politics bleeding into school board elections," he said.

But in a cash-strapped state stuck with high property taxes and a perennial budget shortfall, the election tab adds up.

The primary and general elections cost the state $12 million each, said Jeff Lamb, a spokesman for the state Department of Law and Public Safety. School board, fire district and nonpartisan election costs are paid for locally, and the state says it keeps no record of them.

As part of a package to consolidate government services and reduce property taxes, Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D., Camden) has proposed holding the fire district and school board elections with the November elections, and eliminating the school budget votes. The measures will be considered during a special legislative session on property taxes scheduled for mid-July.

Just 53 percent of the school budgets were approved in the April elections this year, the lowest rate since 1994. Sixteen percent of registered voters cast ballots.

In fire district elections, held on a Saturday in February, just about 2 percent of registered voters go to the polls, Roberts said.

"When 98 out of 100 people aren't participating in a process, we have a problem," he said. "These are good citizens and taxpayers, and the reason they don't participate is we make it too difficult for them."

November's partisan politics could creep into school board elections if Roberts' proposal is approved, warned Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

But on the street yesterday in South Jersey, most voters advocated dropping an election or two.

Shawn Guckin, 30, a cabdriver from Mount Ephraim, advocated a single election day so voters could have a better chance to become informed on all of the issues.

"I don't think the average person even knows what most elections are about," said Guckin, who said he votes only in general elections. "The signs are out, but most people don't have a clue what is being decided."

Scott Wellborn, a CD shop owner who logs 50 hours each week at work, said he didn't have enough time to do his civic duty six times a year.

"It is a pain to find the time to vote," said the Evesham resident, who said he skips the nonpartisan Evesham elections held in May but votes in November's general election. "If they were all held together, the turnout would probably be much higher."

The state's home-rule tradition is to blame for the multiple elections, said Assemblyman Bill Baroni (R., Mercer), an election law professor at Seton Hall University's law school. New Jersey has 566 municipalities, more than 600 school districts, and 100-plus fire districts that all want their own elections, he said.

"The extra elections are rooted in reform. People involved in fire commissions wanted people coming to the polls focused purely on fire safety," he said. "Democracy is a good thing. But maybe we have too much of it."

Contact staff writer Kaitlin Gurney at 609-989-7373 or kgurney@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Angela Couloumbis contributed to this article.

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