Weighing the impact of a recent non-binding referendum, the City Council is scheduled to decide at its Nov. 24 meeting whether to approve an ordinance to change municipal elections from May to November beginning in 2017.
Council members clashed at both their Nov. 10 caucus and Nov. 11 regular meeting over the pros and cons of the move. Most public speakers spoke out against the move at the Nov. 11 meeting.
Mayor Steven Fulop, who pushed for the change, has said he will seek another referendum for November 2016 that will do away with runoff elections as well.
Jersey City has held its elections in May since establishing its current form of government 60 years ago, part of a series of election reforms introduced in New Jersey after the so called “Hague Era” that were designed to reduce the influence of political parties over non-partisan elections such as those in Jersey City.
At the urging of Gov. Christopher Christie, the state legislature in 2010 revised these earlier reforms to allow municipalities to choose when they can hold both school board elections and municipal elections, partly as a result of dismal voter participation.
“You can’t make this move based only four percent of the registered voters.” – Richard Boggiano
When he campaigned for mayor in 2013 Fulop vowed to seek approval to change the elections to November. But critics have charged that Fulop, who is expected to seek the Democratic nomination to run for governor in June of 2017, wants the city election pushed back so if he’s unsuccessful in the gubernatorial primary he can still seek re-election as mayor in November.
Opponents of the move, such as Councilman Richard Boggiano, claim the Nov. 3 non-binding referendum was passed with too narrow a margin for victory for the council to consider it a mandate for change, and that it was voted on by too small a portion of the electorate. Many people who voted for candidates on the ballot did not vote on the referendum at all.
According to the Hudson County Clerk’s website, 9,970 people voted on the question, which passed 5,223 to 4,747, a margin of slightly over 4 percent. By contrast, 24,771 total votes were cast in the city Board of Education race on the same ballot.
If the council approves the ordinance, the change would move the election to November 2017, and would extend the terms for the current mayor and council by six months. Boggiano claims this is illegal. But proponents pointed out that Hoboken did the same thing in 2013.
Would the ballot be too crowded?
Opponents predict a confusing ballot that will include choices for governor, U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, state senate and Assembly, school board, and political committee members, along with the host of candidates for mayor and city council.
“You should put this off or put it on the ballot again,” Boggiano said. “You can’t make this move based only four percent of the registered voters.”
Ward F Councilwoman Diane Coleman disagreed. “If they were against it, then they should have voted.” Community leaders from the poor sections of the city said that voters in both Ward A and Ward F – where Coleman is the council representative – did vote against it.
Barbara Camacho, a community activist, said the move to change the election for 2017 is self-serving, since it extends the terms of office for those who currently hold office.
“This should not apply this time around,” she said, noting that council members in the wards that voted against should reflect the will of their constituencies.
“Once you do this, it will be changed forever,” she said.
Did too few vote for the change?
Opponents also pointed out that even though the referendum passed, voters were almost evenly spilt, and this is hardly a mandate for change.
The point of the non-binding referendum was to get a sense of public sentiment to guide the council to make a decision. Opponents argue that the vote indicates that the council should either put the question back on the ballot during the presidential election of 2016 to get a better sampling of voters, or reject the idea.
“Half the people said no,” said long time administration critic, Yvonne Balcer. “Even to start a recall you need 25 percent of the vote. Passing of this on Tuesday before Thanksgiving is devious, and it is wrong.”
Osborne said the ballot can be redesigned to make it easier for voters to decipher. She said the current voting machines are completely out of date.
“If we can teach two year olds to use an iPad, we can do this,” she said.
But Boggiano pointed out that the high cost for new machines would negate the estimated cost savings of moving the election.
“The county would have to foot the bill,” he said.
Osborne and others said the motive to move the election is to increase voter turnout. Boggiano pointed out that very few people turned out for this year’s election.
Osborne argued that during the presidential and gubernatorial elections turn out is heavy, and will improve the numbers of voters voting in local elections.
Former city attorney Bill Matsikoudis, who represented an unsuccessful lawsuit by residents seeking to derail the referendum, disputed this. He said that the 2013 municipal elections in May showed a higher turn out than the election for governor later that same year.
Most of those supporting the change are connected with Fulop. Although council members who ran with Fulop in 2013 have not yet said which way they would vote, they appear to be defending the change. Boggiano and Councilman Michael Yun appear to be leading the opposition on the council. A number of critics of the Fulop Administration have also joined the opposition, especially in regard to the move to do away with runoff elections.
Under the current system, a candidate must win an elected seat by more than 50 percent of the vote. If no candidate does, then the two top vote getters go into a runoff election.
Boggiano argued that if the election is moved to November, runoff elections would occur during the holiday season, and would be affected negatively by foul weather.
Those against doing away with the runoff elections say that candidates can win with a fraction of the overall vote, rather than a majority. They use the special election in the early 1990s as an example that allowed Bret Schundler to win the mayoralty. They also argue that the lack of runoff will inspire possible tricks, such as stacking the ballot with alternative candidates designed to cut into the votes of opponents.
Matsikoudis said this is a major change that will now allow voters to focus on the importance on the municipal election.
“If you’re going to make this change, then it should be a strong mandate, it should not be a slim vote,” he said, claiming that misinformation was issued prior to the election as to cost and predicted voter turn out.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.