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Low Voter Turnout Reveals Voter Suppression in New Jersey Primaries

by Debbie Sharnak, published

When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie decided to hold the New Jersey special election apart from the previously scheduled November election, he received widespread criticism. Voters and pundits alike blasted the governor for the extra $12 million the election would cost and the potential shortages in equipment and personnel which could create a logistical nightmare for the state in back to back elections.

However, the larger problem lies in the likelihood of an incredibly low voter turnout. In a state that already boasts embarrassingly low numbers, these elections might see the lowest amount of voters elect the state's representatives.

The first problem lies in the long list of deadlines and dates associated with the primary election.

  • June 19 was the deadline for anyone wanting to change their declaration of party affiliation for the primaries, only days after the special election was called
  • July 23 was the last day unregistered voters could register for the primary election
  • August 13 is the primary election, smack in the middle of a month that traditionally has the highest rate of residents on vacation, and therefore, likely unable to vote

The confusing patchwork of dates, however, only compounds an already troubling problem in the Garden State: incredibly low voter turnout which results from a closed and inaccessible primary system.

Even in the 2012 presidential primary, where voter turnout is traditionally higher, New Jersey voters only produced an 8.8 percent voter turnout rate.

This year’s primary elections in June were similarly dismal, under 10 percent, which even county clerks admitted was “very low” for the state. From around the state, reports filtered in of almost empty polling locations.

Essex County Clerk, Chris Durkin, agreed that it “was one of the quietest (primary days) in memory.”

Essex County alone, however, exemplifies the problem of this state trend. Both Democrats and Republicans in their closed primaries each boasted only about 16 percent turnout, whereas nonpartisan registration, where voters can petition to vote unaffiliated, was 0 percent.

These voters were deterred by the closed primary system. Approximately half of the state identifies as nonpartisan, therefore the current electoral process severely limits participation and keeps overall turnout in counties statewide under 9 percent.

The factors associated with a special election will only further suppress voter turnout and ensure that voters have even less say in who their elected officials will be.

This point has even been officially protested in New Jersey courts. The law firm of Shain, Schaffer, and Rafanello filed a motion for emergent relief from the state which alleges that the fundamental rights of both candidates and voters will be negatively impacted by the special election timeline.

While Christie dismissed the claim and the court eventually blocked the constitutional challenge, the suit highlights the debates at the state level which affect the entire electorate. Even attempts to work with Christie’s dates and institute early voting to increase turnout were vetoed by Christie.

The special election primary only spotlights an already dismal problem for New Jersey: low voter turnout in a closed system with more and more roadblocks being elected to limit voter rights to elect their own officials.

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