The governing body of Burlington County’s second-most populous town is considering whether to ask its voters to change the local election to nonpartisan so candidates aren’t identified as members of a political party.
The Township Council began discussing the idea of the switch earlier this year but have yet to take formal action on an ordinance to place a referendum on this November’s ballot asking voters to approve or reject the change. While the solicitor was instructed by Mayor Kurt Folcher earlier this month to draft an ordinance for the council to consider, the measure was not included on the agenda for Monday’s council meeting.
The idea has become controversial though, with Democrats on the council accusing the Republicans of pushing the switch in order to protect their majority and avoid running under President Donald Trump during the 2020 election.
Currently the five-member council is divided 3-2 with Republicans holding majority control, but the Democrats will have the chance to seize control if they manage to flip a seat in 2020 when Folcher is up for re-election along with fellow Republicans Linda Bobo and Irwin Edelson.
“I think largely this is a really a sleazy way to hide your party affiliation in a year that’s not going to be beneficial,” Councilman Stephen Steglik said during the April 8 council meeting.
Some residents have also spoken out against the idea, with some citing the expense of holding an election in May with most other nonpartisan towns and the likelihood that voter participation would suffer.
“It disturbs me that low voter turnout may be the reason you want to move this to May,” resident Harriet Insler said during the March 25 meeting. “This seems to be a ploy to cut down voter turnout.”
Reached by email Thursday, Folcher defended the idea, writing it would remove partisan politics from local government.
“I have been thinking about the decline in the national political environment for years and believe that at the local government level political party is irrelevant,” Folcher said. “A resident came to a council meeting and eloquently asked the council to do something to separate the local elections from the distraction and vitriol of the national elections. We asked our solicitor to report on what the local options are in New Jersey.”
Most nonpartisan towns hold their municipal elections separate from the November general election on the second Tuesday in May, but a 2010 state law allowed those towns to move their elections from May to November without losing the nonpartisan status.
The law mandates that candidates seeking local offices in nonpartisan municipalities must be clearly offset on any ballot from the party lines of candidates running for county, state or national seats.
Bass River, Bordentown City and Medford Lakes are the only nonpartisan towns in Burlington County and all hold municipal elections in May.
Solicitor George Morris told the council earlier this month that the only way to switch to a nonpartisan election is with a voter referendum. While the referendum would require the election to be moved temporarily to May, Morris said the council could opt to move it back to November in order to avoid having to pay for a separate election.
Folcher said he was disappointed the law doesn’t allow towns to make a direct change to become a nonpartisan town with a November election, but he stressed that he was committed to immediately returning the election date to November if voters choose to switch to nonpartisan.
The mayor said the intent is to put the issue on the ballot and let voters decide but that he can see advantages to becoming nonpartisan.
“In Mount Laurel, almost 40 percent of our registered voters chose not to affiliate with either party, and I understand why,” Folcher said. “If the township residents choose to switch to nonpartisan elections, all residents could be involved in local elections and tickets could be any combination of affiliations. Those that chose to not affiliate with a major party or who do not support other elected members of their party would have a legitimate chance to win. Otherwise, the two major parties rig the system against new and unaffiliated voters.”
Steglik and other Democratic officials argue that the Republicans are pushing the idea out of self preservation.
In an opinion piece submitted to the Burlington County Times, Mount Laurel Democratic Party chair Michael Muller, noted that the average voter turnout in Bass River, Bordentown City and Medford Lakes nonpartisan May elections has been just 23.7 percent during the last decade.
By comparison, Mount Laurel’s turnout has hovered around 74 percent during presidential election years when most of the council seats’ terms expire.
“Statistics underscore that this is an attempt to disenfranchise voters by seeking the lowest turnout scenario by running elections in the month of May when voter turnout is historically low,” Muller wrote.
In an interview, Muller said there was no guarantee the Republicans would keep their word and move the election date back to November. But even if they do, he said he would remain critical of the change since many voters in November don’t cast ballots in school board or other nonpartisan races that are offset.
“It’s putting the local election in ballot Siberia,” he said, adding that the Republicans can change their party affiliations and file to run as independents or third-party candidates if they want to lose the GOP label. “This is just trying to hide who they are.”
Folcher said it was Democrats who were disenfranchising the voters from decide the issue themselves.
“The only folks angrily against letting the voters make a choice are extremely partisan Democrats that want to alter Mount Laurel election outcomes by inserting national issues into our local election,” he said. “The fact that a small group of extremely partisan people have pushed an all-out misinformation campaign about the matter leads me to believe that the referendum should happen. Why are they so afraid of the voters having a choice?”