Objective of the petitioners: Move the municipal elections of Montclair to November
By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
When you open your Google Calendar in November, notes Debra Caplan, Election Day is hard to miss.
“Whether it’s on the sidelines of a presidential election or any other election, people are used to voting in November,” she said. “It’s very easy to forget a May election. It’s very easy to slip into people’s minds.
That’s why she and four other residents – with the backing and backing of the Vote Montclair advocacy group – have started a petition that would trigger a question on the ballot, asking residents if Montclair should postpone its municipal election until the fall. Vote Montclair founder Erik D’Amato said that within a day of the petition being announced on Sunday, his group had collected more than 300 signatures electronically.
Vote Montclair has already saw another petition certified by the township clerk’s office this year – because of this effort, in the November election voters will decide whether in the future Montclair should have an elected school board, instead of the mayor-appointed structure serving the school system today. If the new petition gets (and the clerk certifies) signatures that amount to at least 10% of Montclair’s turnout in the last General Assembly election – or around 680 signatures in total – the question of the shifting election dates will also be up to voters.
(The moment at which this ballot question will occur is a bit complicated: if the petition reaches that 10% threshold, the referendum will take place in the next general election. If the petitioners get 15% of the turnout in the last election of Assembly, they could call a special election even sooner.)
The idea, said Caplan and his colleague, Clifford Kulwin, is to increase voter turnout overall. Kulwin – Rabbi Emeritus at B’nai Abraham Temple and critic of the recent voter suppression writes in the opposition the placement of the ballot “county line” for the candidates supported by the party – said Montclair’s election timing was not designed to stifle turnout, but has that effect.
“I don’t think the May election date is as bad as the county line, but the reality is that the turnout will always be much lower,” he said.
Caplan, in 2019, wrote a guest column for Montclair Local in favor of the fall elections. At the time, she said, the question seemed important, “but since then I feel more and more, it is not just a matter of local politics, but of countering the suppression of voters. There are a lot of efforts across the country to make it easier to vote; I think we need it here.
In Montclair, municipal elections are non-partisan, that is, there are no party candidates. They take place every four years and all council seats as well as the mayor’s office are up for grabs. The turnout in 2020 – in a postal election in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic – was unusually high, with 36% of voters registered. But it also happened in the same season that New Jersey recorded its second turnout in the primary election, also organized entirely by mail.
Four years earlier, only 7.9% of voters stood for municipal elections. In the November 2019 election, when all Assembly seats were up, the turnout in Montclair was 21%.
Mobile elections have already been tried in Montclair. In 2012, the city council appointed a “Municipal Election Review Board” which ultimately opposed the holding of the fall elections. The cost savings would not be worth it on their own (the county pays for the fall elections; the municipality for others), and there was not enough evidence that this would lead to greater voter turnout, a the commission said at the time.
He also said that a fall election could mean more political party influence and distract from local issues, potentially costing candidates more to run campaigns and discouraging them from doing so first. location.
Carmel Loughman, a 2020 city council candidate, said she was surprised to see how much money was spent on the elections “and the sources of those funds.” Loughman is also the communications director for the Montclair Area Voters’ League, although she was not speaking for the group in making the comment.
“How much extra money would it take to get traction from a foreigner if one were to run in a presidential election?” she said via email.
In 2012, the League also supported retaining the May date, fearing that local candidates tackling local issues would be overwhelmed by bigger races and worried about a possible partisan shift, Loughman said. But she said the League had not formally discussed the current push for elections in November.
Former Fourth Ward Councilor Renee Baskerville, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2020 against Sean Spiller, said she was also concerned partisanship could be a bigger issue in the fall – and has said she had seen it happen in the spring.
“If we are not going to support and demand that people do not introduce partisanship into our May election, then we are pretty much a wash whether we are in the fall or in the spring,” she said. declared.
She said if Montclair was to consider the type of formally partisan election that most New Jersey communities have, it “is going to take a lot of discussion,” but it would mean losing an aspect of what sets Montclair apart from many other cities.
Caplan, for her part, says the concern over partisanship is an interesting point – but she thinks it could come into play more in the Purple Cities, not Montclair, where in 2020 more than 21,000 people voted for Democrat and now President Joe Biden, but less than 2,500 voted for outgoing Republican President Donald Trump.
“I don’t see people engaging in partisan politics that divide local elections,” Caplan said. “We can only win here because we have a community of people who are highly educated in politics, but we are not sufficiently engaged in local politics. “
Kulwin said he heard the argument that if people are interested, they will vote. And he agrees that it is a question of civic responsibility. But he said realistically, more people will vote in the fall election which coincides with the general election, “and if there is one simple change we can make that saves money and will inspire more people to participate, we should. “
If the petition got enough signatures and was certified, and voters then agreed to move the election to the fall, Montclair would have its first fall municipal election in 2023. The structure would remain non-partisan. Elections would still be held every four years (although Kulwin said he preferred the continuity brought about by staggered terms), and so they would not line up with races for governor or president. They would however align themselves with the legislative races of the States.
They also reduced the current terms of the city council and the mayor by six months. City Councilor Bob Russo noted that when the issue was already discussed, the question arose as to whether the terms should be shortened or lengthened for the schedule change to work – and “I’m opposed to the extension,” said he declared.
“And I am opposed to the partisan election at this point, which takes place in November,” Russo said in a message to the Montclair local. “More turnout is the goal, but I’m concerned that local issues will get lost in more partisan votes across counties, states and countries in the same election.”
Councilor Peter Yacobellis, elected in 2020, said that “given voter suppression efforts across the country since the 2020 election, I tend to support whatever we can to counterbalance those efforts.” .
He said local government is more responsive when more people have a say in the process, “and the historically low turnout in May’s municipal elections tells me that we have a structural problem here that should be addressed.” . And he said, even if it would be to shorten his own term, “I agree if that means our little democracy is improved.” “
The first electronic signature-gathering petition in the state, also in Montclair and submitted by landlords seeking to force a rent control ordinance into a ballot last year, faced a legal battle lasting several months on the verification of signatures. Vote Montclair did not see similar difficulties with its petition on the issue of school board elections, which included both electronic and in-person signatures.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s pandemic-era executive order allowing electronic signature collection expires on July 4, but D’Amato, the founder of Vote Montclair, said he was optimistic that the threshold would be exceeded before then. .