PublicMind Poll Executive Director Explains Low Primary Voter Turnout

In low turnout elections, small organized groups have more impact. In yesterday’s primary, less than 5 percent of registered voters in New Jersey turned out. However, if a ballot question galvanizes well-financed forces around a single issue, like legalizing casinos in North Jersey for instance, could it draw more voters to the polls? The executive director of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll Krista Jenkins sat down with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams to break down yesterday’s low poll numbers and what it means for future elections.

Jenkins says that those who study politics often describe elections as “high information” or “low information,” and one of the reasons for low turnout during yesterday’s statewide primary was that it was a “no information” contest.

“There wasn’t a lot of information out there about who was running and what the stakes were,” she said. “But I think it’s just this larger trend of people just kind of unplugging from politics. As you point out, when you don’t have many big names at the top of the ticket, big issues to galvanize turnout and it’s really a primary for state legislators, it’s not unexpected that you have so few people turning out.”

Another cause of low voter turnout could be explained by voters’ complacency with the status quo. While Jenkins says people not showing up to the polls can be a sign of the health of a democracy, it’s not likely the cause for this low turnout. Polls have shown that people are very concerned about the direction the state is headed and not thrilled with the current leaders, which she says suggests that there is something more to the story than just people accepting the status quo.

“You add on top of this the belief that people have that there’s not a lot that they can really do as voters. People are increasingly concerned about money playing a greater role in politics than individual voices. The party system really dominates New Jersey politics so what’s kind of interesting is that even though this was the primary, in many places people who win the primary actually go on to win the general election because it is such a party dominated system. So it is an interesting fact that people are so disengaged even though there was quite a bit at stake yesterday,” Jenkins said.

Recently there have been a whole host of proposals geared at increasing voter turnout — from changing the election day itself to having people be able to register right at the polls, in addition to being able to register online. Jenkins says research shows that same-day registration would increase voter turnout.

“People often intend to vote but haven’t registered in enough time so they can’t. I think that if New Jersey were to do that we would maybe see a slight uptick in turnout, not a great groundswell of increased voter turnout, but certainly some,” she said.

Should a ballot referendum to legalize gambling outside of Atlantic City turn up on the November general election ballot, Jenkins says there would likely be a higher voter turnout. Although there’s generally an increased voter turnout for general elections, she doesn’t think a referendum on gambling would be that much of a defining issue to increase turnout itself.

“If they were to put this issue, say in 2016, in the presidential when you have the marquee names, the House and a third of the Senate up for grabs, then I think you would see obviously more turnout, but I don’t think that would be a result of any particular state issue galvanizing the turnout,” Jenkins said.

However, party efforts to increase voter turnout are uniquely partisan, aiming to get the people they already have registered to turn out instead of reaching out to new voters.

“What you see are Democrats and Republicans vying for their base essentially,” Jenkins said. “What’s really unfortunate is the people that really need the personal invitations to turn out, to participate in the process, they’re the ones who are increasingly left behind because they can’t be relied upon by either party to turn out in a reliable fashion and vote in a way that’s highly predictable.”

Related: Organization Victories in Contested NJ Primaries