Historically, legislative elections draw the lowest voter turnout, averaging in the low to mid 20 percent range – roughly between one in four or five eligible voters — and when the Legislature went into summer recess after approving the budget at the end of June, every indication suggested this year would follow that pattern.
It’s been 20 years since turnout exceeded 30 percent and 2023 appeared to be another low interest, low enthusiasm sleepy exercise in democracy.
Given all 120 seats are on the ballot, there could be local or regional matters which would drive heightened voter participation, but for the most part, absent a galvanizing statewide issue, poll workers will have ample leisure time to complete crosswords, finish the latest novel or scroll through their phones without interruption.
The injection into what appeared to be a somnolent repeat of past experience of two unanticipated issues — greater parental involvement in local education affairs and the potential to relocate immigrants from New York City in the state — could juice voter turnout to a higher level and introduce competition into normally predictable outcomes.
Democrats, anxious to maintain and build upon their 46-34 Assembly majority and 25-15 Senate edge, are suddenly faced with developing a message to deal with two sensitive, emotional and politically fraught issues, not to mention the worrisome potential for voters to seize an opportunity to take out their frustrations and discontent with the Biden Administration on Democrats in general.
The role of parents in local education — an issue which has become a national concern — was thrust into the New Jersey campaign season when a closely divided State Board of Education — adopted an updated administrative code that replaced “equality” with “equity” and removed a number of gender-based expressions in favor of neutral terminology.
Sensing the potential for controversy and political backlash, the Legislature’s presiding officers — Senate President Nick Scutari (D-Union) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) — quickly issued a joint statement expressing their concerns and misgivings over the changes and suggested greater legislative involvement.
Not surprisingly, Republican leaders were considerably less circumspect, accusing the Board of driving a wedge between teachers and parents and, in effect, of sticking its ideological nose where it didn’t belong.
Other critics echoed some elements of the national debate over sex education and the subject matter covered in the curriculum.
The level of concern was brought into sharp focus in a March poll conducted by Stockton University in which two-thirds of respondents believed greater parental involvement and influence in curriculum decisions was necessary.
Immigration and dealing with the influx of migrants across the southern border has roiled the nation since the Biden Administration took office in 2021 and began rolling back Trump era restrictions.
Without warning or pre-notice, the Administration issued a list of Federally-owned sites — including Atlantic City International Airport — as potential re-location spots to ease the strain on New York City caused by the influx of some 60,000 migrants many of whom are living in hotels and overcrowded shelters at a cost to the city which could run into the billions of dollars annually.
In less than 24 hours, Gov. Phil Murphy — recognizing the risk posed by moving an undetermined number of migrants to the airport — pulled in the welcome sign he’d erected in 2017 when he pledged to designate New Jersey a sanctuary state and was unsparing in his criticism of border state governors who ordered the bussing of migrants to states and cities in the north.
Murphy made it clear that New Jersey was incapable of handling and providing housing or services to migrants at the airport or any other locale now or in the future.
Democratic and Republican legislators alike tore into the proposal, blaming the Biden Administration for failing to control the border and creating a crisis which it now seems indifferent to solving.
Despite the generally bipartisan opposition by state officials here, the immigration issue is closely associated with the national Democratic Administration and its implementation of policies which critics charge has resulted in open borders and record numbers of migrants accepted into the country.
The daily bombardment of images of migrants sleeping on sidewalks, living in makeshift shelters and tents has only heightened the criticism of the president and his party whose only response has been to deny the extent of the problem and blame it on a failure of Congress to act on systemic reform.
The rapid negative reaction to the relocation proposal — particularly on the part of the governor — acknowledges a fear that some of that criticism may filter down into New Jersey’s legislative election.
With election day two months off, Democrats may hope the education and immigration matters will fizzle out as turning point moments and be superseded by corrective action or an understanding that immigration is a national issue over which states have little control.
Their emergence, though, has given Republicans significant openings to draw contrasts with Democrats, energize their base and reach out to disaffected independents with a message of change and governing competence.
A gain of six Senate seats and seven Assembly seats would turn legislative control to Republicans — a difficult task to be sure — but a return to a 30 percent plus voter turnout would suggest a pushback of dissatisfaction with the in power party.
What began as a repeat of the all too common election pattern of low interest may have taken on new and significant meaning this year.
The timeworn discussions of government spending and taxation — long staples of legislative campaigns — may be shoved aside by meatier and more understandable issues.
It may mark the start of “game on” rather than “game over.”
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.