Last night’s discussion about the pros and cons of shifting Montclair’s municipal elections from May to November raised lots of questions and will likely result in the formation of a committee to evaluate the proposed change. Sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area, the event drew around 35 residents, ranging from seasoned community activists to those less entrenched in local politics, according to Elizabeth Santeramo, Public Relations Officer for the LWV’s montclair area chapter and moderator of the discussion.
“The questions and comments from residents were eye-opening,” Santeramo told Baristanet. “People spoke of the town’s voting history and provided more information on the issue so that we ended up with a good view of both sides.”
Mayor Jerry Fried, who spoke towards the end of the meeting, told Baristanet that he is pleased with the way the process of bringing this issue to the public’s attention has gone so far. “It’s a first step,” he said.
Fried says he is in favor of any change that will make Montclair’s government a more representative democracy. “Now, fewer than 7,000 of the town’s 26,000 registered voters turn out for municipal elections, and most of those are single family home owners,” he explained. “My hope is that a November election would increase voter turnout and resident participation in governance, allowing the town’s renters — who are just as much a part of the town as the home owners — to be better represented. It’s hard to argue that more voters is a bad thing.”
However, Montclair resident Martin Schwartz told Baristanet that the mayor’s statements about the change increasing voter participation, particularly among renters, “simply do not hold water logically.” Schwartz sent us the following comments:
He had a completely opposite view when he argued against allowing open voting and direct participation for school board elections, arguing that extreme, single-issue groups who were not involved with the school system — might gain control over the school board process. That’s why we need to study this issue carefully, and wait to see if there is any clear impact on those Township’s who have changed their dates, before we take any action.
Councilor Cary Africk also offered Baristanet some thoughts on the issue:
The most [common] two reasons for a switch would be to:
– Save the money necessary to run a separate election,
– Increase voter turnout.
Reasons against making the change included:
a) The money saved, approximately $50,000, would only be saved once every four years. Is saving $12,500 a year really that significant?
b) From all data presented it seemed that more people come out to November elections when higher-level people were being elected.
But the data also show that there is a wide disparity in participation between the top names on the ballet and those lower. Thus the person at the top of the ballot may get 50% of the registered voters, but the person at the bottom of the ballot may only get 35% of the registered voters.
Thus, even if a May election gets only 25% of the registered voters, a change to November might not increase the participation to 50% (or whatever), but may only get participation increased from 25 to 35%. Some data even show a participation of LESS with a November election.
c) It will cost more for candidates to run. It will cost candidates to become more visible. Take, for example, municipal elections being held in a Presidential year. There will be a huge amount of discussion and publicity, articles, columns, blogs, meetings and discussions. About the President. This will make it much harder for the critical issues that face Montclair to get the attention those issues deserve.
If it costs more to run as a Municipal candidate, fewer will run. And with people contributing to National campaigns, fewer dollars will be available for the local candidates.
d) There is no actual data guiding us. We don’t know if this change will work.
e) Having more voters turn out does not imply that more “informed” voters will vote. It is reasonable to assume that anyone putting in the effort to come and vote during a Municipal only election will be familiar with the Municipal candidates and the issues. During a national election a voter may have little knowledge of the Municipal candidates and elections because that’s not the reason he came – he came to vote for President, Representative, Senator, etc
If we decide to move forward, most everyone thought it best to form a Committee to research the move. After all, what’s the rush?
Some thought in addition to a Committee the question should be put in a Referendum so all could decide (at least the ones who would show up for a Referendum).
It was also clear that most thought these changes, if implemented, should take place in 2016 and NOT in 2012. If implemented in 2012 the change would in effect, extend the term of all current officials from July 1, 2012 until December 31, 2012, an additional six months. Some have suggested this is the “real” reason some on this Council want to make the change.
The Mayor, who spoke at the end of the meeting, also claimed that such a change might affect positively turnout of the 43% of the Town that is comprised of people who rent. The Mayor surmised that these renters were the least likely people to come out in an election. By moving the election to November, perhaps many more would vote. This is pure conjecture. Perhaps there are reasons other than “it’s not in November” that renters don’t vote. Perhaps they don’t plan on staying very long. Or perhaps they feel that tax, as well as other town issues, don’t really affect them.
Mayor Fried said that he is all for the formation of a committee to study the issue, and encourages continued public conversation and debate. “The question is, how do we empower more Montclair residents?” he asked, during a conversation with Baristanet. “People who own homes are more likely to be involved in the governance of the town — no council member or mayor has ever been a renter. At the very least, we can shoot to get non-homeowners voting.”