State and Local Elections: Your Voice Matters!

On Tuesday, November 7, 2017, New Jersey will hold its Gubernatorial election, and many municipalities within New Jersey will hold local elections.

State and local governments directly affect citizens’ everyday lives. State governments hold all power not delegated to the United States government in the U.S. Constitution. They control many taxes that people pay, such as sales tax, state income tax, and other payroll taxes. They set the minimum wage and determine funding ratios for state schools. Each state also creates its own criminal codes and other laws that dictate citizen behaviors.

The structure of municipal governments vary widely, and each state grants powers specifically to municipal governments. Local governments typically fund and manage recreational services, libraries, police and fire departments, and public services such as water, sewer, and snow removal. They also maintain local roads and create ordinances, including traffic laws, health codes, and laws about property usage.

Despite the importance of state and local government, these elections receive far less attention than national elections, and voters turn out in significantly lower numbers. New Jersey’s last Gubernatorial election in 2013 drew record low voter turnout, with only 39.6% of eligible voters showing up. Local elections that do not coincide with national or statewide elections fare even worse. According to a study by Portland State University, many cities see less than 15% turnout for local elections.

Many state and local politicians run unopposed for decades. This complacency removes voters’ ability to choose candidates that best represent them.

Rachel Marlowe spreads the word of her campaign by knocking on neighbors’ doors

Candidates in New Jersey, including Rachel Marlowe, a Democrat running for Mount Olive Town Council, and William H. Needham III, a Republican running for Morristown Council at Large, found this to be the case leading up to the June 6 primary election.  Each seized this opportunity to become a write-in candidate. The lack of choice in local elections surprised Marlowe when she moved to Mount Olive two years ago. “I got my sample ballot and saw that the Democrat column was entirely empty, which I never saw in my entire life, including the three years I spent in Central Pennsylvania for law school,” she says. This year, when the Mount Olive Democratic Party officially formed and needed a volunteer to run, she jumped at the chance.

Since the party formed in Mount Olive after petitions were due, Marlowe and three other Democratic candidates, Jim Buell, Kris Grasso, and Matt Fink, reached out and asked their neighbors to write the four of them in on the ballot. They only needed a small percentage of the total number of registered Democrats, but they exceeded that number, increasing primary election turnout by 288%. Marlowe describes the write-in process as “actually fairly simple,” and, in fact, easier than getting on the ballot through the traditional process.

William H. Needham (second from left) and his running mate, James Sullivan (third from left), man the grill at Community Day to meet neighbors

William H. Needham, III, likewise, felt it was important for voters to have a choice. “Dialogue and awareness are extremely important. The democratic process fails when there is no challenge,” he says. After deciding to run for Council at Large, Needham and his running mate, James F. Sullivan, Jr., had the help of the Morristown GOP in reaching out to a handful of constituents. Since Morristown’s regulations only required 10 votes for a write-in candidate to qualify, Needham and Sullivan found their way onto the ballot for the general election.

Kate Matteson, a Democratic candidate for Assembly in New Jersey’s 24th Legislative District experienced a similar lack of choice in her district. She noticed Democrats always appeared on the ballot, but never presented any legitimate competition, since voters had little to no awareness of the Democratic candidates. In a district dominated by the Republican party, Matteson hopes to build the Democratic party, whether she and her running mate, Gina Trish, win or lose. She also views her campaign as a way to gain support for Democratic candidates across the ballot, including the 17 down-ballot municipal candidates.

Brenda Taube (third from left), attending a Landisville Volunteer Fire Department Fundraiser

Other candidates in New Jersey have found inspiration in increasing diversity in politics. Brenda Taube, Republican candidate for Assembly in New Jersey’s 2nd Legislative District, first ran for Commissioner of her hometown, Margate, and won the race. As the first female ever elected to this position in Margate, she notes, “It’s important that a governing body reflects the population it represents. Women are underrepresented in government.” This motivated her to take the next step in running for state Assembly.

State and local candidates, especially those running against incumbents or deeply entrenched parties face numerous challenges in raising awareness for their campaigns. Needham explains this challenge in Morristown, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 3:1. The dominant party often controls the information disseminated to voters, and Needham faces the challenge of getting voters to listen to new information. Candidates agree that to combat this challenge, they need to knock on doors, educate voters, and listen to their concerns. “Nothing beats getting in front of them, showing respect, and asking for their vote, instead of bombarding them with information by mail or e-mail,” Needham says.

Kate Matteson in the Sparta Township Fourth of July Parade

Similarly, Matteson adds, “Going out and knocking on doors has been the scariest and most rewarding thing I’ve done in my whole life. I’ve heard so many people say, ‘I thought I was the only Democrat out here!’ I’ve heard that from hundreds of people.” Taube also points out that meeting someone face-to-face allows constituents to see the real you, rather than relying on the image negative media campaigns create.

The challenge of building awareness is compounded for candidates running outside of the traditional two-party system. Henry “Hank” Green, a Green Party candidate for Mayor of Atlantic City, explains that many people are stuck on the two-party model. As a third-party candidate, he generally does not get invited to debates, and is otherwise shunned by the media. One of the biggest challenges he faces is that independents often don’t have the funding to run a serious campaign, despite their desire to participate. “It’s a way to exclude people from the electoral process,” he explains.

Getting involved locally is one of the best opportunities community members, especially young people, have to make a difference.

As a Millennial, herself, Marlowe aims to counter the false narrative of her generation. “People think we sit in front of our devices all day and don’t do anything, but those aren’t the Millennials I know, and those aren’t the Millennials I meet when I’m knocking on doors. By running for local office, we can send the message that we are working hard.”

Henry “Hank” Green (right) at Community Services Day at New Hope Baptist Church day care

Green agrees that young adults can send a powerful message. “If you can get strong leaders out there who have persuasiveness with their peers, and get them into leadership roles, they can start spreading the word of how powerful youth can be,” he says.

Matteson’s campaign hosted a voter registration drive at Sussex County Community College, but she acknowledges that there are many factors that prevent younger voters from turning out. She feels both parties need to do a better job recruiting dynamic candidates that capture the interest of young voters. Furthermore, she acknowledges the very real barriers that prevent young people from voting. She recalls, “Between the ages of 18 and 30, I moved fifteen times. When you move that often, it’s hard to re-register every time and to stay informed.”

With such low voter turnout in state and local elections, as well as the relatively low number of votes required for victory, each individual vote has the potential to change the outcome of the election. Young voters in particular, who typically turn out in significantly lower numbers in local elections, have the power to influence elections and shape the laws and policies put in place at the state and local levels. These levels of government directly influence citizens’ lives and livelihood, so voting in state and local elections gives voters a concrete method to create change.

Note: The Andrew Goodman Foundation is a nonpartisan organization. This article is intended to illuminate the experience and challenges of campaigning for state and local office, and does not serve as an endorsement of any of the candidates mentioned.

About the Author

Emily Curran is the Communications and Development Manager of The Andrew Goodman Foundation. Emily holds a Ph.D. in History and Culture from Drew University, where she focused on twentieth-century American cultural history, culminating in a dissertation entitled, “Natural and Technological Wonders: Embracing Modernity at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.” She received her Bachelor’s degree in History and American Studies from Ramapo College, where she now teaches as an adjunct professor. Prior to joining AGF, she worked as the Visitor Services Coordinator at the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms, and she remains an active volunteer with the museum.