Kansas Proposal Tried To Mixed Reviews In New Jersey

By John Celock

With Kansas officials considering moving nonpartisan local elections from April to November, New Jersey might be able to offer some advice, having made the same move in recent years.

New Jersey lawmakers have given Garden State municipalities that have nonpartisan local elections the ability to move their elections from May to November, while local school districts can move from April to November. The moves have been better received by school districts. Officials in New Jersey have offered mixed reviews for the move, praising some cost savings, but noting a mixed bag in terms of increased voter turnout.

Of the 88 New Jersey municipalities that have nonpartisan elections, more than a dozen have moved from the spring to November, according to Ed Purcell from the New Jersey League of Municipalities. State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) signed legislation allowing the switch in January of 2010. Sweeney was serving as acting governor at the time while then Gov. Jon Corzine (D) traveled in Europe. The remainder of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities hold partisan elections in November with a June primary.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) signed legislation in 2012 that would allow local school districts to move their spring elections from April to November. Under the plan, school districts that switched their vote would also no longer need to seek public approval for their school budgets in a referendum. According to figures compiled by the New Jersey Department of Education, 517 school districts now hold November elections while 20 still hold April elections. Seventeen school districts in New Jersey allow the mayors to appoint Board of Education members.

“Increasing voter participation benefits everyone,” Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop (D) said in a statement backing a date change for his city. “By moving the municipal elections to November, voters are offered the chance to cast ballots for all government offices at once – school board, city, county, state and federal – enhancing the pathway to the democratic process for all of our residents.”

Kansas lawmakers are in the process of drafting legislation to move the nonpartisan municipal races to the November ballot, citing a need to improve voter turnout. Gov. Sam Brownback (R) endorsed the change in his State of the State Address earlier this month.

The logistics of combining nonpartisan elections on the same ballot as a partisan contest has been raised by New Jersey officials. A similar argument has been raised in Kansas by Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew (D).

“There are big problems. The first problem is does the ballot have enough room to include all of these races,” Union County, N.J. Clerk Joanne Rajoppi (D) told The Celock Report. “Some voting machines are limited in terms of the width and length and what you can put on the ballot. You are limited by your equipment.”

Rajoppi, a former president of the International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials and Treasurers, said that she and her 20 counterparts in New Jersey have worked to join everything together on one ballot, but said it could be a challenge in the future.

She said that in her state, the clerks have placed a black bar on the ballot to separate out the partisan November races from the nonpartisan races. But down the line, she could see issues with fitting everything on the ballot, particularly in presidential years.

“In New Jersey no matter what the legislators do the clerks make it work. It is working,” Rajoppi said. “I could see a situation where if you have a statewide referendum and it’s a presidential where there are a zillion candidates there could be a problem fitting everything on the ballot.”

Under the nonpartisan spring plan in New Jersey, a first round is held in May with a runoff in June. The plan is largely used in heavily Democratic communities. Among the communities that hold spring elections are the state’s two largest cities, Newark and Jersey City. But that situation could change.

Fulop earlier this month proposed moving his city’s elections to November, starting with the next election in 2017. The Jersey City Council endorsed Fulop’s plan, which will go to a citywide referendum later this year. Fulop had originally endorsed the move during his 2013 campaign.

Fulop, a likely 2017 gubernatorial candidate, and others have touted the move as a way to save money by eliminating two elections and raise voter turnout. Fulop has estimated that the date change would save his city $400,000. A 2017 move in Jersey City would also allow Fulop to seek a second term as mayor if he were to lose the June gubernatorial primary, which he would not be able to do under the current calendar.

Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer (D) was able to move her city’s elections from May to November, starting in 2013. The Hoboken change was approved in a citywide referendum, after Zimmer originally tried to change it via ordinance, Councilman Tim Occhipinti (D), told The Celock Report.

Occhipinti, who opposed the move, said that while voter turnout has increased in municipal races, it is tougher for local candidates.

“On a positive note we’ve seen more voter participation, “ he said. “We’ve also seen candidates struggle to get their message out being overshadowed by state and federal races.

Zimmer defeated Occhipinti and then Assemblyman Ruben Ramos (D) in the 2013 mayoral race. Occhipinti noted one downside of the change was the elimination of the June runoff election. Zimmer received 47 percent of the vote in the 2013 race. Occhipinti is aligned with a different political faction than the one led by Zimmer.

Local officials in Kansas have made similar arguments that local races should be held at a separate time in order to keep the focus on local issues. Former Smith Center Mayor Trey Joy (R) said that local candidates need to have their messages heard. Occhipinti said that in his 2013 race, it was tough to get voters to focus on local issues like flooding and parking when other races are competing for attention.

Occhipinti, though, has had success in November, first winning his Council seat in a November 2010 special election, then winning reelection in a May 2011 election. He stressed though that voters should be able to make the decision not politicians. Joy has made the similar argument in Kansas.

“It is important to let the voters decide if they want to keep their races from November,” Occhipinti said “There is nothing wrong with it if that’s what they want.”

In terms of the school board contests, board members have seen a higher turnout and a cost savings to the districts. Westfield, N.J. Board of Education member Mitch Slater told The Celock Report that the move has helped his suburban community.

“The upside has been higher voter turnout in November- downside to me is a longer term than I originally bargained for,” Slater said. “I think there is a savings but probably due to not having to have a budget vote anymore and campaigning for the yes.”

Under the move, Slater and other board members had to add eight months to their terms for the first rounds of November elections.

Former Westfield Board of Education Vice President Ann Ormsby Cary, who did not seek a fourth term last year, told The Celock Report that the change was beneficial. She said that while the board did not have to educate voters to approve the budget, the board still took steps to provide public insight into the budget and was “rigorous” with the budget writing as it had been when there was a public vote.

She noted that being freed from a budget campaign annually allowed board members to focus on other issues.

“It is easier for the board and the administration. We would spend a lot of time and a lot of man hours on education the public and bringing them along,” Ormsby Cary said. ”We still want to do that and bring them along. Since we did not have to spend as much time doing that we were free to focus on other issues.”

She noted that the state’s two percent cap on property tax hikes makes it easier to eliminate the budget referendum since voters know any tax hike would not exceed that amount.

Ormsby Cary praised the ability for more voters to vote in board elections and focus on educational issues. She had not run in a November election, winning her third term during Westfield’s last ever April election in 2011.

A review of turnout from the November 2014 Westfield school board election to April 2011 race showed a slight uptick with 10,082 total votes being cast in 2011 and 13,296 total votes being cast in 2014. Westfield voters can vote for up to three board candidates and the figures available on the Union County clerk’s website show the aggregate total and not the number of individual voters. The 2011 and 2014 Westfield elections were similar in scope with only one incumbent seeking reelection and seven active candidates on the ballot.

Westfield’s 2014 school vote count is similar to the 13,116 votes cast in the town’s April 2010 school election. The 2010 school elections in New Jersey saw a larger turnout statewide following deep cuts made by Christie to state school aid. Westfield, a suburban district ranked as one of the best in the state, had also seen a highly competitive 2010 race that pitted challenger Slater against three incumbents, with the budget, transparency, school redistricting and a new teacher contract dominating the debate.

Rajoppi, county clerk since 1996 and a former New Jersey assistant secretary of state, said that while there is an uptick in school board voting due to the higher overall turnout, there is still a drop-off from the votes cast for offices higher on the ballot. She noted voters tend to be familiar with the higher offices and not the local offices. Rajoppi is also a former school board member and mayor in Springfield and Union County freeholder.

“People pay less attention, they may not be fully informed of who is running on school board. They might not have an interest,” Rajoppi said. “They should be if they are paying taxes in New Jersey.”

She said the only difference is for “a very controversial race.” She was referring to the competitive races for the Board of Education in Union County’s largest city, Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s Board of Education is controlled by a dissident Democratic Party faction long at war with the establishment faction of the party controlled by Mayor Chris Bollwage (D) and state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth).

Shaw and the League of Kansas Municipalities made similar arguments to Rajoppi, saying turnout will see the same drop-off. Kansas state Rep. Steve Huebert (D-Valley Center), a main proponent of the move, dismissed the drop off argument.

“While that is an issue, even with that you will see a large increase. Is there drop-off? Yes,” Huebert told The Celock Report. “We would work to minimize drop-off. Anybody who gives us as an excuse not to do it is grasping at straws.”

With some saying that there is a cost savings from eliminating the election, Occhipinti questioned if it is a true cost savings for taxpayers. He noted that in Hoboken the saved funds were then moved to other budget areas and not a tax deduction.

“I think if the politician can be very honest with themselves that we are going to save money but will return it to our constituents it is more meaningful,” he said.

Ormsby Cary found herself in agreement with those pushing the move from Kansas, along with Fulop, saying that greater voter participation is the key.

“We love it when people come out to vote,” she said. “The higher the turnout the better, in my opinion.”