Home>Highlight>The year of the unlikely voter: why Democrats care so much about VBM reform

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, left, with Senate President Steve Sweeney. Photo by Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe

The year of the unlikely voter: why Democrats care so much about VBM reform

Three Assembly races in last six years have been decided by less than 80 votes

By David Wildstein, August 23 2019 2:15 am

Click play for audio version of this story

New Jersey has elections where candidates for the State Assembly head the ticket twice in four years, every other decade.  It occurred in 2015 and won’t happen again until 2035.

2019 is considered an off-off year, when voter turnout is about as low as it can go.  Statewide voter turnout was at 22% in 2015 – the lowest in New Jersey history — compared to 39% in 2017 and 56% last year.

While political experts have been able to forecast turnout in these Assembly-led elections in the past, changes to the state’s vote-by-mail laws create an unpredictable turnout model.

Since 2019 will be the first time a huge number of voters will receive their off-off year ballots in the mail, it’s possible — perhaps even likely — that some Assembly races in 2019 will be determined by unlikely voters.

There has never been an off-off year election where so many voters won’t be encumbered with remembering to show up at the polls — instead  ballots are being delivered directly to their homes.  There is no historical data to predict turnout amidst a huge spike in mail-in ballots.

Extraordinarily close Assembly races are not at all unusual.  Indeed, three contests over the last six years have been won by margins of under 80 votes.

In 2015, Democrat Andrew Zwicker ousted Republican incumbent Donna Simon by 78 votes, 16,308 to 16,230 in the 16th district.

Democrat Vincent Mazzeo defeated GOP Assemblyman John Amodeo in the 2nd district by a mere 40 votes in 2013, 25,164 to 25,124.  In the 38th, Democrat Tim Eustace was re-elected by 56 votes against Republican Joseph Scarpa.

Two years ago, Republican Ryan Peters won an open Assembly seat by 350 votes.  He faces an aggressive challenge to win a second term this year in the 8th district.

That’s the reason Democrats are fighting so hard to make sure that the universe of 2017 and 2018 VBM voters will automatically receive mail-in ballots for the 2019 general election.  Under normal circumstances, many of these voters would never consider voting in an election where largely unknown Assembly candidates are at the top of the ticket.

Democrats have a vote-by-mail edge in some districts where Republicans hold Assembly seats.

Here’s one example: in 2018, Democratic congressional candidates Tom Malinowski and Mikie Sherrill combined to win the machine vote in the towns in the 25th legislative district by 12 percentage points, 56%-44%.  Malinowski and Sherrill won the vote-by-mail by 20 points, 60%-40%.

The numbers in a second illustration are even more stunning: Democratic candidates for Congress in the towns that comprise the 21st legislative district won 55% of the machine vote in 2018, while winning 71% of the vote-by-mail.  The 10-point machine margin was microscopic compared to the combined Democratic House vote VBM margin of 42 points.

In the four largest 21st legislative district towns in the 7th congressional district, Malinowski beat five-term Republican Rep. Leonard Lance by outsized margins in the VBM ballots:

* Westfield: Malinowski won 61% of the machine vote and 73% of the VBMs.
* Summit: Malinowski won 61% of the machine vote and 71% of the VBMs
* Cranford: Malinowski won 57% of the machine vote and 68% of the VBMs.
* Bernards: Lance won the machine vote 52%-48%, but lost the VBMs, 62%-38%.

Mail-in ballots allowed Malinowski to win Bernards — a town GOP gubernatorial candidate Kim Guadagno carried by 1,055 votes (56%-44%) in 2017 – by 93 votes (50%-49%).

Westfield cast 31% of their total 2018 congressional votes through vote-by-mail ballots, while Summit was 24% — massive numbers that strongly benefited Malinowski.

That’s why Democrats have called the Legislature back into session in an almost unprecedented late August session just to move a vote-by-mail reform bill before county clerks mail ballots on September 21.  They are anxious to piggyback their targeted Assembly candidates to extensive vote-by-mail organizational efforts mounted last year by Bob Menendez’s U.S. Senate campaign, and by the congressional campaigns of Malinowski, Sherrill and Rep. Andy Kim.

Democrats think the localization of national issues in the era of President Donald Trump might help them capture six seats in Gov. Phil Murphy’s mid-term elections.

In 2018, New Jersey saw its statewide voter turnout jump 20 points, from 36% in 2014 to 56% in 2018 as Democrats capitalized on Trump’s upside-down approval numbers to flip four congressional seats.

Some argue that the 21st is now a Democratic district, although the incumbents, Jon Bramnick and Nancy Munoz, will be tough to beat.

After legislative districts were redrawn following the 2010 census, the 21st had 4,357 more Republicans than Democrats.  Now the district has 4,796 more Democrats than Republicans.

In 2017, Munoz was re-elected to a fifth term by 1,554 votes against Democrat Lacey Rzeszowski.  Bramnick, who runs his own campaigns and often doesn’t include his running mate, ran 1,010 votes ahead of Munoz.

The Democrats are running Lisa Mandelblatt, a strong fundraiser who briefly ran for Congress last year before becoming one of Malinowski’s top backers, and former New Providence Democratic Municipal Chair Stacey Gunderman.

Among the challenges for Mandelblatt and Gunderman is to convince voters in Bramnick’s hometown of Westfield to put his 100% rating from the National Rifle Association ahead of his funny and likable persona.

Beating Bramnick in Westfield isn’t impossible.  In the last election, Rzeszowski ran 222 votes ahead of Bramnick there – the first time he wasn’t the top vote-getter in his hometown.

If Bramnick is taken out, he’d be the first sitting Assembly Minority leader to lose re-election in at least 100 years.

The 25th still leans GOP, but it’s become increasingly more competitive: there are 8,132 more Republicans than Democrats.  When the district was drawn in 2011, the Republican edge was 15,935.

Two years ago, Democrat Lisa Bhimani almost upset State Sen. Anthony R. Bucco, losing by just 2,528 votes, a 52%-48% margin.

Now Bhimani is taking on Bucco’s son, five-term Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco, who re-election in 2017 by a scant 2,430 votes.

Bhimani is running with Chester Democratic Municipal Chairman Darcy Draeger; Bucco’s running mate is Denville Councilman Brian Bergen, who wants to win the open seat of retiring twelve-term Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll.

Democrats have made this district one of their top targets for the ’19 mid-terms.

The potential closeness of the 25th district contest could be one of the reasons Morris County Clerk Ann Grossi, a Republican with ties to Bucco, has been trying to limit the number of vote-by-mail ballots sent out by her office to just the 2016 VBM universe.

It was a letter sent by Grossi to the 2017 and 2018 mail-in ballot voters that drew the attention to the Secretary of State’s ruling that eventually led to an emergency session of the Legislature.

Republicans don’t dispute that the two Assembly seats are in play.  Bucco is taking the challenge seriously, although he’s been a little unscrupulous with the facts.

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2 thoughts on “The year of the unlikely voter: why Democrats care so much about VBM reform

  1. David Wildstein – it seems like something got cut off here, “It was a letter sent by Grossi to the 2017 and 2018 mail-in ballot voters that drew the attention”

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