Opinion—Ideas for Reforming Our Elections

by mantunes

You may not have noticed, but Newark had its municipal elections in May. Then again, it does not seem many of the city’s residents noticed either. Turnout was below anything seen in over 50 years. All offices were up for election—the office of mayor, the at-large positions, and all five ward council seats—and yet only 17,784 voters cast ballots for mayor, the most important race. To put this turnout into perspective, 237,355 people are registered to vote in Newark according to the Essex County’s Clerks Office

Past elections have seen much higher participation. In 2018, 28,694 ballots were cast for the mayor’s race. In 2014—the most competitive the election for mayor had been in decades—45,057 were cast. This means that 2022’s turnout was 61% and 39% of its two previous races, respectively. (In the iconic election that saw Kenneth Gibson accede to the mayorship in 1970, over 98,000 people voted for the office of mayor.) 

Even if you had voted, your options for candidates were very limited. None of the candidates running at-large were challenged in their races. The same goes for the North Ward council seat. In fact, if you were a voter in the North Ward, your ballot contained only one contested race, despite there being six votes that you could put down. The one race for which a North Warder’s vote actually counted (again, the mayor’s race) ended up being a lopsided contest between Ras Baraka and the relatively unknown (and frankly unseen) Sheila Montague. In other words, for 20% of the city, there was basically no election.

Tens of thousands of people have died in Ukraine since the onset of the Russian invasion in March over the very issue to elect their own leaders and have a democratically accountable government, something many Newark leaders have called attention to in their own speeches. However, while we are advocating for armed support and money for Ukraine here, this very basic right seems to be forgotten about or taken for granted. 

There is no question that political apathy has become a national problem, and it is unfair to blame Newark and its residents for larger cultural and social trends going on in the country at large. Still, disengagement, whether on the local or national level, is a very serious problem but one we can do something about. Newark’s process for selecting its leaders could use both light-touch and heavy-handed reforms, reforms which will hopefully make elections more salient to those who participate in them and in turn get more people out to vote. 

The last time Newark’s political structure had any significant changes was in 1953, when Alan Lowenstein—founding partner of the storied New Jersey law firm Lowenstein Sandler LLP—chaired the Newark Charter Commission and led the creation of the Mayor-Council structure we have today. In 70 years, there have been barely any changes to the whole system. Three generations of Newarkers have lived under this structure; it is hard to believe that not even some minor reforms of substance haven’t been attempted with any level of success, reforms that would adapt the system to the vast demographic and cultural changes that have occurred in the city over those seven decades. 

I’ve been contemplating a couple of fixes to the system I believe will bring about increased turnout. The idea that the more people participating in elections leads to better outcomes is the fundamental philosophy that undergirds our democratic system. I have also made a couple of assumptions that underlie these proposals. I believe competition is fundamentally good for a system where leaders are elected. (I also believe the converse is true, that incumbency is not inherently valuable in its own right.) I have also assumed better awareness about elections will increase turnout.

First (and probably the easiest reform to do) is to move election day to the traditional Tuesday reserved in November for elections. This may seem minor, but the doubly off-cycle nature of Newark’s elections really does depress turnout. As a voter in Newark, you are expected to vote in the Presidential election every four years; the gubernatorial, state legislature, and county elections every four years (though not in the same year); the election for U.S. Senate twice every six years; the local board of elections every other year; and the city’s elections every four years—layer on top of that the countless primaries and run-offs that occur in between. While the pervasive use of mail-in ballots has made it easier to participate, the inability to keep track of all these elections makes it difficult for the average Newarker to keep up with who is running for what. I spend all my time following politics; even I can’t be bothered to keep up with the school board elections with their incoherent nature and lack of substantive platforms. Frankly, incumbents with well-heeled machines behind them benefit the most from this confusing schedule as they are best able to get their supporters out on random Tuesday in May.  

Second, we should either eliminate the councilperson-at-large position or limit a voter’s ability to cast a ballot to only one of the candidates. When you think about it, the position doesn’t make much sense. The city already has an at-large representative, and that is the mayor. Initially, the position was meant to give minority groups who don’t coalesce neatly into one of the ward boundaries a chance at getting representation on the council. That works when you are given a single vote to put for one candidate. Right now, 50% and one is enough to control all the candidates, giving a single bloc across the city the ability to control 4 out of 9 seats on the council, an unfair advantage in my opinion. Limiting to one vote will encourage candidates with distinct plans to unite coalitions across the city to come forward and offer a significant amount of representation for certain groups unable to command a majority across the city or in one ward. 

Third, we should implement a single-transferable vote (STV) system, which will both eliminate the inefficient run-off system which requires that people vote a second time and will allow for candidates with views that align more with more of their constituents to win the seat. Under STV, voters rank the candidates based on their preference for each, while also being able to withhold ranking from candidates they find abhorrent or unelectable. Under the current system, the top two candidates (if no one wins a majority in the first go-around) run another election a month later. There is a possibility for a candidate who is really unliked by a majority of the voters to come ahead in the system, just because they are able to get the plurality votes in the earlier round. A couple of localities including Cambridge, Massachusetts use the STV system with some success to avoid this issue. It’s not a universal fix, but could work well with the other changes I’ve outlined above. 

There are so many other reforms we could pursue, but these three are a good start to bringing back a sense of salience to the election to the average voter in Newark. Hopefully, they can also act as a foundation to build upon, leading to better and more fruitful political participation for all the city’s residents. 

mantunes is a resident of Newark who writes about the city.

Featured image by Pexels.