An explanation for voter turnout

As I launch this weekly endeavor to highlight and hopefully explain various political processes, events and phenomena that affect New Jersey, I must take a moment to express my gratitude to the publishers of politicker.com for affording me the opportunity to extend my role as an educator to a broader audience. My goal in writing this column is to bring an academic perspective to developments in New Jersey politics that will inform and challenge readers. I claim no particular inside information, and my contact with those who wield power in the state is marginal, at best. Nonetheless, I believe that I can offer readers a perspective that is often lacking in the dialogue that surrounds politics in our state.

The results of the November 6th election produced few surprises, but they do point to a fundamental problem that in many ways is more serious than the looming fiscal crisis that the state faces or any other public policy question. This problem is one of the basic self-governance and challenges the premise of our democratic system. Simply put, it is the participation or turnout rate that is expected in this year's legislative elections.

This year's turnout rate was estimated at 31 percent, one of the lowest in the state's history. Such a low turnout, raises questions regarding how legitimate and representative our government really is. Political Scientists offer many explanations for low voter turnout, and I believe several of them apply to New Jersey.

One explanation for low voter turnout is the lack of competitive elections. As far as the legislative elections were concerned, this was clearly the case in 36 of the 40 districts. In the Senate races, the three competitive races resulted in the defeat of three incumbent candidates. In the 37 other Senate races, the candidate representing the party that held the seat previously retained the seat. Thus, in spite of the record turnover in the Senate, the Democrats enjoyed a net gain of one seat. In the Assembly the story was pretty much the same, with the Republicans enjoying a net gain of one seat. Thus, for voters in these non-competitive districts, there was little reason to participate.

A second factor that depressed turnout is a lack of information that voters are provided about the election. This is an indictment of the way in which campaigns are conducted and covered by the media. New Jersey is not located in a single media market, but is divided between two of the largest markets in the country. As a result, television coverage of New Jersey politics and elections is limited and running commercials is very expensive. As a result, we get little information about candidates' positions and an abundance of attack ads.

In addition, we lack a state-wide newspaper, though the Gannett chain covers much of the state, and the Star Ledger has expanded its circulation in recent years. This means that coverage of local events is fair, but statewide issues are often given little attention. And while there is some coverage of local politics and elections, the amount of coverage provided by local newspapers is also rather sparse. It takes a good deal of effort to be an informed voter in New Jersey, and unfortunately fewer and fewer of our fellow citizens are making that effort. For many individuals, a lack of information translates into a lack of confidence in their ability to assess the candidates running for office.

A third factor is structural and includes the sheer number of elections we conduct. Our state elections are conducted in odd-years, and federal elections occur in even years. This means there is an election every year in New Jersey. When you couple this with the number of local elections we conduct, such as municipal, school board and special districts, it is easy to see that participating in the electoral process requires one to continually follow politics to feel confident in one's judgment.

A final explanation, which runs counter to the previous three mentioned, is that most voters do not feel threatened by the political system and are content, therefore they have no compelling reason to vote. According to this notion, people participate in politics when they feel that their interests are at risk by the individuals or parties controlling government. (This is the basic reason that politicians use negatives ads, which are designed to "scare" voters so that they will vote against the individual who is the target of the negative ad.) The vast majority of citizens fail to recognize the impact of governmental policies on their lives and hence not feeling threatened, they see no need to participate.

What can be done to encourage greater participation? That is the subject of future columns.

Joseph R. Marbach, Ph.D., is Acting Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Seton Hall University. An explanation for voter turnout