For 95 years, the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of New Jersey has been working to bridge the gap between candidates and voters. However, each year more and more candidates dodge debates, leave questionnaires unanswered and simply refuse to explain their policy positions directly to voters. The league and many New Jersey residents are frustrated with this new normal.
There are several reasons voters stay home. Noncompetitive districts, outdated voting laws constructing barriers to the ballot, special interest money and partisan bickering all play a part in discouraging voter participation. But there are voters hungry to learn more about candidates, be informed on policy issues and make wise decisions on election days.
These voters reach out to the league directly or through our many local leagues in communities around the state asking for us to sponsor and moderate forums and publish candidates’ answers to our policy questions. When candidates refuse to participate, they leave these voters out in the cold or worse, completely unaware of impending elections. According to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll taken just prior to the last election, 75 percent of those surveyed did not even know an election was taking place. On Nov. 3, fewer than 23 percent of eligible voters actually cast a ballot.
Candidates often rely on the party faithful voting a straight ticket on Election Day. Partisan get-out-the-vote efforts become about focusing attention on mobilizing the party’s voters. And worse, as special interest money is poured into our state, those interests are able to control the message within the parties.
However, about 48 percent of New Jersey voters are not affiliated with a party. In fact, New Jersey has one of the highest rates of unaffiliated voters in the nation. Forums and candidate questionnaires give candidates an opportunity to share their positions on public policies, allowing voters to choose the candidates who best represent their views regardless of political party.
We can keep repeating this pattern of allowing parties, special interests and a record low number of voters to determine who represents us locally and in Trenton or we can do something to reclaim our democracy. The League of Women Voters demands change.
We must update our voting laws to expand opportunities. The Democracy Act, recently vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie offers commonsense approaches to accomplish this. The provisions of the Democracy Act, including in-person early voting, and online and automatic voter registration have successfully increased turnout in other states with bipartisan support.
And we need to reexamine our methodology for determining legislative districts to make them more competitive and reflective of the residents within them. Voters should pick their representatives; representatives should not pick their voters. We must also combat the influence of special interest money, putting power back into the hands of the voter. Special interest groups spent about $10 million this year in the few competitive Assembly races in our state, leaving candidates chasing dollars and not voters.
And finally, we must hold candidates accountable when they avoid debates. Shaking hands in diners is not good enough. Call them out! Demand they earn your vote by telling you, specifically and in a public forum, exactly where they stand on issues of importance to you. We can increase turnout in our state, but it is going to take all of us demanding better.
Nancy Hedinger is president of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.