Last Wednesday, Newark Mayor Cory Booker defeated former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan to become the next U.S. Senator from New Jersey. Booker will finish out the final 15 months of the late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ)'s term and will likely seek a full six year term next November. One of the biggest stories revolving around the election leading up to it was the potential turnout and how low it might be. With the election in the books, it not only was low; but a record low.
It will still be probably be a couple weeks before final tabulations are recorded, but at the moment it looks like about 1.3 million of the roughly 5.5 million registered voters in the state came out to vote. That breaks down to about 24% of registered voters. The previous low percentage for an election in New Jersey occurred two years ago with 27% for the State Legislature elections. If the governor's race was not at the top of the ballot in two weeks, this year's State Legislature elections might have ended up rivaling both of those percentages.
When comparing that 24% to previous U.S. Senate general election races in the state, the next lowest turnout occurred in 2002 with 46%. It is safe to say the record low turnout of last week might not be touched at least with U.S. Senate races in New Jersey.
Possibly the biggest reason for such a low turnout was the unusual Election Day on a Wednesday in the middle of October. If the election occurred three weeks later with the rest of the state's elections, it would have most likely produced a better turnout. Governor Chris Christie's decision to hold the election when he did was heavily debated earlier this year and with the initial projection of the voter turnout last week; it has sparked continued conversation.
As state Senator Barbara Buono (D-18) campaigns against Governor Christie to become the next governor of the state, she has attacked him multiple times over the costly special election. She has warned about voter confusion and disenfranchisement and the results of last Wednesday speak loudly to those claims.
Joining Buono is Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-15), her campaign chairwoman. Watson Coleman has heard reports of issues with several voters sending in ballots for both the special election and November's races. The confusion around what elections were taking place and when they were slated for has left some ballots in limbo of potentially being invalidated. For the Buono campaign, all those votes for her that might be attached with a vote for Booker might hurt her in two weeks as she attempts to close the gap between herself and Christie.
As Watson Coleman would describe,
We spent $24 million to get to this point when it was totally unnecessary to do that. (Christie) feared having Lonegan at the top of his ticket and he feared having Booker at the top of our ticket. Now, we have to make sure that people who did vote by mistake…have that (November ballot) counted.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-3) would be equally vocal about the developments of Wednesday's voter turnout and the ballots cast.
We need to make sure this never happens again, and I guess we have to address this in a legislative way. Having an election on Oct. 16 on a Wednesday? No one’s ever voted on a Wednesday that I remember. We’re going to have to bring some clarity to this.
Christie was able to choose his preferred date for the special election based on the slightly open-ended wording in the state's laws. According to what is on the books regarding succession for a prematurely vacant seat, it states in one section that an election must take place during the closest general election while in another section it states that an appointed senator could fill out the rest of the term.
Thus, Christie could have planned the special election this November or next November based on those two choices. One choice would likely appease Democrats with a short window to get Lautenberg's seat back this year while the other choice would appease Republicans as they would likely hold Lautenberg's seat at least for the duration of Lautenberg's term and possibly longer. Christie fighting for reelection and needing Independent voters and a decent amount of Democratic voters leaned towards choosing the first option. But, he would take advantage of the wiggle room with the wording related to the law and put the special election three weeks before the November elections and schedule the primary accordingly as well in August. The move angered members of both parties.
Sweeney would add,
I’m going to have legislation that clears that up and makes sure that when someone passes, you have an election that happens at the next general election.
Time will tell how much money the special election will cost the state and what the exact turnout will be for the special election this past Wednesday. But, based on the end results outside of Booker's victory; this special election did not positively impact voters in New Jersey where a U.S. Senator for the state at stake. When it is already a struggle most non-presidential election years to get voters to the polls, planning a Wednesday mid-October election did not encourage a high turnout. The date selection for the special election will likely continue to be dissected in the coming weeks.