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Help Democracy, Hold Fewer Votes

Trenton Watch | Ingrid ReedLast month the Legislature examined the budgets of state departments and agencies. Its only goal seemed to be to cut. There was little emphasis on efficiency, combining functions or doing more with less.
Here is how lawmakers can do all of those things, as well as serve voters and increase participation in the democratic process: Consolidate elections. New Jerseyans are currently called on to cast ballots three times in three months. And this doesn?t count the February votes on fire-district budgets in municipalities where such districts still exist.
April 19 was the date for voters to go to the polls?not the same ones where they vote in November and not at the same hours?to vote on school budgets and elect school board members. Once again the turnout averaged a disappointing 15% or less. Unless you are a parent or a teacher or are prodded by organized opponents, school elections are a blur.
This Tuesday, May 10, is another election day. Municipalities with a nonpartisan form of government will go to the polls and some of these elections will require run-offs in June to determine the winner. Even fewer people will participate then came out this week.
Then on June 7 comes the primary election. Since American democracy is wedded to the two-party system, our laws call for the public to conduct and pay for the elections in which parties select their candidates to run in the fall. Turnout depends on whether there are contests.
Elections do cost money and they require a complex management system to make them fair. No matter how many people show up, ballots must be designed and printed, absentee ballots distributed, poll workers hired and trained, polling places established, voting machines taken from storage, delivered and picked up, notices posted in newspapers, sample ballots sent and, of course, votes counted.
Despite all this preparation, voters often can?t figure out when or where to vote, which guarantees low turnout. While we may not be able to deal directly with voters? cynicism or their complicated lives, we certainly can make it easier to vote.
Wouldn?t it make sense to hold the elections that don?t involve political parties?for school boards, fire districts, special bond issues and nonpartisan municipal offices?on one date in the spring? Some legislators thought this was a practical idea last month and included the consolidation of elections on the list of reform measures they wanted to promote.
But you won?t see it among the reform bills that will be coming up this month. They focus on such matters as simplifying voting by absentee ballot, using mail ballots in small municipalities and voting at town halls.
Why not seize this chance to save New Jersey voters time and money? What could possibly be the risk to the state?s elected leaders in advocating that elections be consolidated?
The streamlined approach to voting would make it easy to remind New Jersey citizens about just three dates they would need to know for elections. April or May would be for nonpartisan community elections, June for party elections and November for the big general vote. That?s it. As for runoff elections, why not institute ranked balloting? Just ask voters to number the candidates in their preferred order and no other election is needed. This works in other places, so why not in New Jersey?
There would, however, be one exception to this approach. The election reforms on the list of proposals that legislators put out last month include primaries every four years in February to choose candidates for the presidential election. This would permit New Jersey to be part of the action, which it cannot be under the current June primary system. My guess is that voters could handle this special election?and would be willing to pay for it.

Ingrid Reed is director of the New Jersey Project at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

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