By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
When you open your Google calendar in November, Debra Caplan notes, Election Day is difficult to miss.
“Whether or not it’s alongside a presidential election, or any other election, people are used to voting in November,” she said. “It’s very easy to forget about a May election. It’s very easy to slip people’s minds.”
That’s why she and four other residents — with the backing and support of advocacy group Vote Montclair — have started a petition that would prompt a ballot question, asking residents if Montclair should shift its municipal elections to the fall. Vote Montclair Founder Erik D’Amato said within a day of announcing the petition on Sunday, his group had collected more than 300 signatures electronically.
Vote Montclair has already seen another petition certified by the township clerk’s office this year — because of that effort, in the November election, voters will decide if, going forward, Montclair should have an elected school board, instead of the mayor-appointed structure serving the school system now. If the new petition gets (and the clerk certifies) signatures that amount to at least 10% of the Montclair turnout from the last General Assembly election — or about 680 signatures in all — the question of moving election dates will go to voters as well.
(The timing of when that ballot question would occur is a bit complicated: If the petition hits that 10% threshold, the referendum would happen at the next general election. If the petitioners get 15% of the turnout from the last Assembly election, they could prompt a special election even sooner.)
The idea, Caplan and fellow petitioner Clifford Kulwin both said, is to boost voter participation overall. Kulwin — rabbi emeritus at Temple B’nai Abraham and critic of voter suppression who has recently written in opposition the “county line” ballot placement for party-endorsed candidates — said the timing of Montclair’s elections wasn’t designed to stifle turnout, but it has that effect.
“I don’t think having the election date in May is as nefarious as the county line, but the reality is turnout will always be much smaller,” he said.
Caplan, in 2019, had written a guest column for Montclair Local advocating for fall elections. At the time, she said, the issue seemed important, “but since then I’ve just felt more and more, this is not just an issue of local politics, but about countering voter suppression. There are a lot of efforts throughout the country about making it easier to vote; I think we need that here.”
In Montclair, municipal elections are nonpartisan — which is to say there are no primary races or party nominations. They’re held every four years, and all council seats as well as the mayor’s office are up for grabs. Turnout in 2020 — in an all-mail-in election during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic — was unusually high, with 36% of registered voters participating. But that also came in the same season New Jersey saw its second-highest-ever turnout for primary elections, also held entirely by mail.
Four years earlier, only 7.9% of voters turned out for the municipal election. In the 2019 November election, when all Assembly seats were up, turnout in Montclair was 21%.
Moving elections has been tried before in Montclair. In 2012, the Township Council appointed a “Municipal Election Review Commission” that ultimately argued against moving to fall elections. The commission said the cost-savings wouldn’t be worth it alone (the county pays for fall elections; the municipality for others), and there wasn’t enough evidence it would result in more voter turnout.
It also said a fall election could mean more influence from political parties and could shift focus away from local issues — potentially costing candidates more to run campaigns and discouraging them from doing so in the first place.
Carmel Loughman, a 2020 candidate for Township Council, said she was surprised to see how much money was spent on the elections “and the sources of these funds.” Loughman is also the communications director for the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area, though she wasn’t speaking for the group in making that comment.
“How much more money would need to be spent to get any traction by an outsider if one had to run during a presidential election?” she said by email.
In 2012, the League supported keeping the May date as well, worried local candidates addressing local issues would be drowned out by larger races, and worried about a potential shift toward partisanship, Loughman said. But she said the League hasn’t formally discussed the current push for a November election. The group also opposes having an elected school board in Montclair, saying it could lead to more electioneering and a higher barrier to entry for people interested in serving.
Former Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renee Baskerville, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2020 against Sean Spiller, said she also worried about partisanship could be a bigger issue in the fall — and said she’s seen it happen in the spring.
“If we’re not going to uphold and demand that people don’t bring partisanship into our May elections, then we’re pretty much a wash whether we’re in the fall or the spring,” she said.
She said if Montclair wants to consider the sort of formally partisan elections most New Jersey communities have, that’s “going to take a lot of discussions,” but it would mean losing one aspect of what sets Montclair apart from many other towns.
Caplan, for her part, says the concern about partisanship is an interesting point — but one she thinks might come into play more in purple towns, not Montclair, where in 2020 more than 21,000 people voted for Democrat and now-President Joe Biden, but fewer than 2,500 voted for Repubican incumbent Donald Trump.
“I don’t see people getting into divisive partisan politics over local elections,” Caplan said. “We only stand to gain here because we have a community of people who are very politically literate, but we don’t have enough engagement with local politics.”
Kulwin said he’s heard the argument that if people are interested, they’ll vote. And he agrees it’s a matter of civic responsibility. But he said realistically, more will vote in fall elections that coincide with general elections, “and if there’s a simple modification we can make that saves money and gets more people participating, we should.”
If the petition were to gain enough signatures and be certified, and voters then agreed to move the elections to the fall, Montclair would have its first fall municipal election in 2023. The structure would remain nonpartisan. The elections would still be every four years (though Kulwin said he prefers the continuity brought about by staggered terms), and so they wouldn’t line up with gubernatorial or presidential races. They would, however, line up with state legislative races.
They’d also cut the current Township Council and mayoral terms short by six months. Councilman Bob Russo noted when the issue has been discussed before, the question was raised as to whether terms would have to be shortened or lengthened to make the change to the calendar work — and “I’m opposed to extending,” he said.
“And I oppose partisan elections at this point, which are held in November,” Russo said in a message sent to Montclair Local. “Greater turnout is the goal, but I am concerned that local issues may get lost in more partisan county, state and national voting in the same election.”
Councilman Peter Yacobellis, elected in 2020, favors the fall elections — even if the change would cut his first term short. He said that “given the voter suppression efforts around the country since the 2020 election, my inclination is to support whatever we can to be a counterweight to those efforts.”
He said local government is more responsive when more people have a say in the process, “and the historically low turnout for municipal elections in May tells me that we have a structural problem here that should be addressed.
The first electronic signature-gathering petition in the state, also in Montclair and submitted by landlords seeking to force a rent control ordinance to a ballot vote last year, has faced a months-long court battle over the verification of signatures. But Vote Montclair didn’t see similar difficulties with its petition on the question school board elections, which included both electronic and in-person signatures.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s pandemic-era executive order allowing for electronic signature gathering expires July 4, but D’Amato, the Vote Montclair founder, said he’s optimistic about surpassing the threshold with a healthy margin before then.