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Primary Voters Importance Continues to Grow in New Jersey

Joe Crowley is a name that strikes fear to every incumbent and hope to every primary challenger.

Who is Joe Crowley? 

Crowley was the nine term New York City congressman in a reliable safe Democratic district with speculation he could one day be Speaker of the House. At the age of 56 in 2018, he was the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, the fourth highest leadership position for Democrats in the House of Representatives.

That all changed on June 26, 2018. Crowley was defeated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by 14 points in the Democratic primary that saw just under 30,000 votes cast. Ocasio-Cortez, even with Crowley on the ballot in the general election, won the seat by 64 percentage points.

Tea Party Problems 

This fear in not only on the left.

The rise of the Tea Party began when Rep. Eric Cantor, the House Majority Whip when Republican held the House in 2014, was defeated in the Republican primary by David Brat. Among the issues the loss was attributed to was Cantor’s moderating of views after entering House leadership and low turnout for the primary election. Brat would go on to lose the seat—held by Republicans since 1971—in the 2018 election to former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger.

Incumbents in both parties have become targeted for not adhering to the extreme wings of their parties on a variety of issues. The art of being able to work across the aisle has gone from being a strength to a candidate’s potential Achilles heel when it comes to low turnout elections such as primaries. 

Primary Importance

With these elections still fresh in the minds of candidates and new election norms facing candidates and voters, the delayed July 7 primary in New Jersey has gained more importance  than that of recent memory. 

Primary elections are historically low-turnout events but have started to rise in recent years. In the last U.S. congressional primary in 2018 that included a Senate election for the seat held by Sen. Bob Menendez, approximately 644,000 votes were cast statewide, a 74% increase over the roughly 360,000 who voted in the last congressional midterm in 2014. The state has a total of 6.1 million registered voters; only 3.2 million would go on to vote in that year’s November election.

Primary votes by Democrats rose to about 402,000 from the 204,000 total in 2014. Republican turnout increased as well, rising 43% to 223,000. Still, by percentage, only 19% of registered Democrats and 18% of registered Republicans casted a ballot. 

Party Registration

A look at the 2020 voter registration as of April 1 for the five congressional districts in North Jersey shows three seats where Democrats have a clear advantage. The 8th and 10th districts have a majority of voters who are Democrats, 53.7% and 58.3%, respectively. The 9th district has 44% voters who are registered to vote as a Democrat, with 39.6% unaffiliated.

The numbers in the other two districts tells a different story. For the 5th district, 40.1% of voters are unaffiliated, with 30.2% Democratic and 28.7% Republican. In the 11th, there is an even percentage split at 30.7% between the two parties with 37.7% unaffiliated. It is one of the main reasons that the Cook Report has labeled both races competitive in November.

In 2018, Josh Gottheimer, running unopposed, increased votes for himself by 151% to 26,505 compared with 2016. On the other hand, the GOP recorded a 92% increase to 30,715 when John McCann beat former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan.

Split 11th

In the 11th district, where a battle was held for the seat of the retiring GOP Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, Democratic voting in the primary increased jumped to 45,052 from 9,149 in 2014, while the GOP saw an increase of more than 17,000. Rep. Mikie Sherrill would go on to beat Jay Webber for the seat that November.

But this year, primary voting will be held differently than in year’s past, due to decisions made by Gov. Phil Murphy related to the coronavirus that may drive up turnout. 

The election date was moved back, to July 7 from June 2. And voters can either cast their vote at their local polling booths on the day of the election or vote-by-mail, with all registered voters having already received their ballot in the mail. Those who were unaffiliated received an application to declare which party’s primary they wished to vote in.

Vote-by-mail Issues

The state held its first all vote-by-mail vote in May with mixed results. Elections were held May 12 in 17 towns with nonpartisan forms of government and a handful of school districts statewide. Races in cities such as Newark and Montclair recorded higher than usual turnout for the elections. 

But issues did arise as a result, including a higher-than-normal percentage of disqualified ballots and issues with voters in urban dwellings.

After reviewing issues that arose, Murphy announced ballots will be counted until seven days after the election instead of the two day limit in the May election. The ballots do have to be postmarked by July 7.

Additionally, state officials are working with the United States Postal Service officials to make sure all ballots are not only mailed to residents but are processed so residents’ votes can be counted. 

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