Critics who oppose changing Jersey City’s municipal elections from May to November appear to be satisfied now that the City Council voted on Dec. 16 to put the question back on the ballot next November to see if they should be moved. If the referendum is approved, the elections will move beginning in 2017.
Voters narrowly approved a non-binding resolution last month to move the election. But the final choice would have been in the hands of the City Council, and many critics were poised to challenge the council approval.
So Mayor Steven Fulop asked the council to approve a new, binding referendum. This means if the voters approve the change, the council will have no choice but to move the election. If the referendum is voted down, the election would remain in May.
Council members appear to be split on the proposed referendum. Councilman Richard Boggiano appears to be opposed, based on several considerations, largely because he feared that moving the election would do away with the runoff election. Currently a candidate has to get 50 percent plus one of the total votes cast to win without a runoff.
City Attorney Jeremy Farrell, however, said the referendum being proposed would only move the election, and not eliminate a runoff.
“To eliminate the runoff you would have to have another referendum on the ballot,” Farrell said.
Mayor Fulop, however, told the Hudson Reporter last month that he intends to do away with the runoff election as well.
“Many people when I campaigned in the May election didn’t even know there was election going on.” – Councilman Frank Gajewski
Fulop asked the council last week to withdraw the original ordinance that would move the elections, and is pursuing a new referendum instead.
Moving the election will mean more voter turnout?
Fulop and most of the council have backed the idea of moving the election to November in order to increase voter turnout. Critics said this would lead to voter confusion and a lack of focus on municipal elections. The November date would put local races on the same ballot as elections for governor, state senate and assembly, freeholders, school board, and party committee elections.
The change, if voters approve the new referendum, would affect the 2017 mayoral and council election.
Council members – particularly in Wards A and F – were under pressure to oppose the change that voters approved last November largely because voters in those wards overwhelming rejected the move.
Ward A Councilman Frank Gajewski disputed this perception, saying that by this logic Councilmen Boggiano and Michael Yun – who opposed the move – ought to vote for the change because their wards approved the referendum last November.
Legislation approved by the state in 2010 allows municipalities to choose to move their elections if voters approved. May elections were established in the late 1940s as part of a series of election reforms in reaction to some of the activities of then-Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague. The move was designed to reduce the influence of political parties on non-partisan municipal elections. The theory was that municipal elections would not also be influenced by some national or state trend.
Gajewski said “old time” politicians do not want to change because the move would increase the number of voters turning out.
“They feel they can control a smaller turn out,” Gajewski said. “If the election is moved to November, it will bring out a lot more voters because many people will come out to vote for governor.”
He said this will also focus more attention on local issues.
“Many people when I campaigned in the May election didn’t even know there was election going on,” he said. “This shocked me since there were so many mailers. But when it came to a runoff people would look at me and say, ‘But we already had the election.’ Many people just don’t understand or aren’t focused. In November, people come out to vote for governor so that municipal numbers will also increase.”
Critics threaten to put the matter on the ballot anyway
Fulop’s decision to dump the original referendum results in favor of a second binding vote next November came after activists threatened to use a rare provision in state law that could require a special election to void a council vote.
Some believe Fulop is pushing for the change from May to November to allow him to run for reelection as mayor in 2017 if his bid to become the Democratic nominee for governor fails. If the elections remain in May, Fulop could not run for both, and would have to choose between running for governor or mayor.
Council members aligned with Fulop said moving the election was part of a platform they ran on in 2013, designed to save taxpayers the cost of the May election, and to improve voter turnout.
“This was part of our platform when we ran,” Gajewski said. “We said we were going to dissolve the JCIA, move the Parking Authority into the Police Department, and change the elections from May to November. Mayor Fulop, when he was councilman, tried and failed to move the elections. Now he can.”
Critics got what they wanted
Bill Matsikoudis, who served as city counsel for former Mayor Jerramiah Healy, has represented critics in both challenging the language or the original non-binding referendum, and later, the move to put the matter back on the ballot, called Fulop’s decision a move in the right direction.
“I see this is as a fair question,” he said. “And I’m happy the mayor and council are seeking to a binding resolution. We look forward to continued debate and discussion.”
The change of tactics by the Fulop Administration also would remove any doubt about voters’ intentions. Last November’s election had an extremely low turnout with a sharp drop off in votes on the referendum. The new referendum will be on a ballot with the presidential election and will generate the largest possible turnout. If the referendum passes, then opponents will lose a significant part of their argument against the change.
But even without the non-binding resolution, which passed, the council and mayor could have legally made the change by themselves. But Council President Rolando Lavarro in consultation with Fulop said the idea behind the referendum was to make sure everybody is heard on the matter.
“Every step of the way, we have put Jersey City residents first,” said Ryan Jacobs, spokesperson for Fulop. “We know that a small group of Mayor Healy’s former staff and council members is protesting moving municipal elections and want to return to power and move the city backwards. Nevertheless, we feel comfortable putting this question to a binding referendum in November because it will mean maximum voter input. And that’s really what we want: for every voice to be heard.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.