By Debra Caplan
In November 2018, Montclair voters turned out for the midterm elections, with a robust 64 percent of registered voters showing up at the polls.
But our municipal elections, held every four years in May, are a different story. In our last election in May 2016, less than 8 percent of registered voters came out to vote for our mayor and town council. The municipal election before that, a highly contested race that received significant press coverage in The New York Times, drew only 29 percent of registered voters.
Montclair is, by most accounts, a politically active town. In 2018, hundreds of fired-up Montclair residents canvassed for candidates in the midterm elections. Today, Montclairites are running political organizations, canvassing for local, state, and national candidates, running campaigns, and spearheading canvassing operations in large numbers – not to mention the dozens of political journalists who live here and shape local, state, and national conversations about politics.
So why is turnout so low in Montclair’s local elections? It’s largely a matter of timing.
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Montclair’s elections are held in May because a New Jersey state law used to require that all nonpartisan local elections be held in the spring. That changed in 2010, when Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) sponsored a bill giving towns the option of keeping their elections nonpartisan but moving the date to November in order “to increase voter participation.”
In 2012, Montclair convened the Montclair Municipal Election Review Commission (MMERC) to study this issue. At the time, the MMERC voted not to move the elections to November because there was “insufficient evidence” that it would increase turnout, but the commission also recommended that if voter turnout increased in other towns after moving their May elections, a follow-up study would be “imperative.” Since 2012, dozens of other towns have moved their May elections to November and voter turnout has increased substantially, but there has been no follow-up.
Nine years ago, Montclair was one of 86 towns that held municipal elections in May. By 2014, there were less than 20 such towns statewide. Today, we’re one of only a few towns in New Jersey that still holds May elections. Most recently, in the fall of 2018, West Orange voted to move their elections from May to November. There is now ample data from surrounding towns supporting the argument that moving Montclair’s election date would drastically increase voter turnout.
In addition to increasing voter turnout, consolidating elections in November would also save our township money. West Orange estimates that their election date change will save between $80,000 and $100,000 every four years – which is similar to what Montclair would likely save. Every time we hold elections, we pay tens of thousands of dollars for polling place fees, required advertisements, delivery of voting machines, mailing and printing sample ballots, and hiring poll workers. Holding elections in November and May doubles the amount of money Montclair needs to spend on these costs in a municipal election year. As Mayor Robert Parisi told the West Orange Town Council, “there are not a lot of easy ways to save money” in a township budget. This is one of them.
Political scientists have extensively studied the issue of local election timing, and the research is clear: consolidating municipal elections with state and national elections significantly increases voter turnout. Across the country, when local elections are held separately from statewide elections, turnout of under 20 percent is common. The Public Policy Institute of California published a 2002 study showing that voter turnout in off-cycle municipal elections was 25 to 36 percent lower than elections held during statewide races. Data from political science research conclusively demonstrates that election timing is “the factor most strongly associated with turnout in local elections” (Marschall and Lappie 2018) and that consolidating elections in November renders politicians more responsive to the electorate as a whole instead of special interest groups (Anzia 2014).
Most of the 86 towns in New Jersey that used to hold elections in May have moved to November because there’s ample evidence, both from other New Jersey towns and from national experts, that consolidating elections increases voter turnout while saving taxpayers money.
With one simple vote, our town council could do the same.