This November, Jersey City voters will get the chance to decide whether or not May municipal elections will be moved to November to coincide with national and statewide races. The referendum, spearheaded by Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop would be effective for the 2017 mayoral race if it passes. That means that he and members of the council who are up for reelection would run to reclaim their positions in November of 2017 rather than May, six months earlier.
Because Fulop is widely considered to be weighing a gubernatorial bid, there have been backroom murmurs that his motivation for trying to get the elections moved is a political one. Namely, if the elections are moved from May to November, Fulop can focus any campaign efforts to the June 2017 gubernatorial primary rather than running a race for mayor in May and turning around to run for in the Democratic gubernatorial primary three weeks later. Some are questioning whether those back-to-back elections would be feasible for the mayor, leaving him with a choice: trying his hand at governor or backing down and staying at the helm in Jersey City. When he first put forward the idea of moving the elections in January, Fulop said that the motivation was to save the city money and increase turnout at the polls.
According to Ben Dworkin, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, while the movement of the Jersey City municipal election to November would certainly make things easier for Fulop because it would allow him to pursue the office of mayor in the event of a gubernatorial primary unburdened. If it doesn’t pass, Dworkin said that Fulop may opt to leave the office of Jersey City Mayor behind.
“I think he is pretty committed to running for governor,” Dworkin said. “It is hard to imagine that, as much as he enjoys being mayor, he wouldn’t give it up for the opportunity to be governor of the state of New Jersey. I think he will do everything in his power to make sure he is not in that position. He will find the votes to do this. It would put him into a difficult situation, but not an impossible one.”
Associate Professor of Politics at Seton Hall University Matt Hale agreed with Dworkin that a chance to become governor would likely supersede Fulop running for mayor in 2017.
“If he is running for two offices at once, that is an easy attack piece for one of his opponents. Does he want to be mayor or does he want to be governor? I can see the ads already. So I think he may have to make a choice if this doesn’t work out for him and my guess is that he is going to pick governor,” Hale said.
However, according to Hale, there is also substance behind Fulop’s claims that he wants to consolidate elections for reasons outside of his own ambitions.
“I think not just in New Jersey, but in a lot of places, there is a movement toward consolidation of elections,” Hale said. “Elections cost money and if you are going to have an election with a really low turnout because there is no statewide office or there is no national office on it, the thinking is that we want to get as many people to vote so you want to group this together. Even though this might be politically expedient for Steve Fulop I don’t think he is alone in trying to get this process started.”
Bill Matsikoudis is an attorney who is leading the charge opposing the shift of Jersey City’s elections from May to November. According to Matsikoudis, the claims that moving elections will save money and increase turnout are false.
“We only have to look at 2013 when the [Former Mayor Jerramiah] Healy, Fulop, Jerry Walker race garnered substantially more voters than the Governor’s race in November between Barbara Buono and Chris Christie. So his argument is obviously false. The most recent election shows it unequivocally,” Matsikoudis said. “As far as saving money, again it is nonsense. We have a budget approaching $600 million and if there is a savings of $200,000 I would be surprised. But, because you are going to have so many candidates, you might need to have extra voting machines. It might actually increase cost.”
For Matsikoudis, the cons outweigh the pros.
“Jersey City has, like many other cities, a tradition of non-partisan elections. If we were to combine those with the partisan elections for governor, state senate and the general assembly, it is going to be a major distraction from our local issues and it is going to let the statewide elections suck the oxygen from the room,” Matsikoudis said. He also said that the shift would reduce media coverage of local issues and hinder voter ability to make informed decisions. “It is also going to create an exceptionally confusing ballot where candidates have to make upwards of 15 selections with over 70 candidates to choose from.”
According to Matsikoudis, the biggest argument against moving elections stems from the shift for runoff elections from June to December that would be implemented in a shift of elections. Initially, Fulop had also wanted to do away with runoff elections but the deadline to post that question for a public vote this November passed last Friday with no action.
“Now you are going to have a runoff in the middle of the holiday season in December. So how does that help turnout?,” Matsikoudis said.
Matsikoudis said that he could not speak to the mayor’s motivation for trying to shift elections.
“I can’t say for certain and I really don’t care. If it had nothing to do with Steve Fulop I would still be fighting against it,” Matsikoudis said. “He could easily, easily eliminate any question by putting this question on the ballot in 2017 instead of 2016. That is what he should do.”
When Fulop was a councilman in 2010 he expressed interest in shifting elections from May to November.