New Jersey’s 2020 experiment with mostly mail-in voting and a smaller number of in-person polling places where voters had to use provisional ballots is over. Instead, with vaccines readily available and the pandemic waning in New Jersey, voters can head to their regular polling places and vote on machines in Tuesday’s primary election.
The governorship and all 120 seats in the Legislature — as well as many county and municipal offices — are on the ballot this year. While turnout will be lower this year than in 2020 — it always is in gubernatorial election years compared to presidential election years — there are a lot more competitive races on the ballot.
Four candidates are seeking the GOP nomination to take on Gov. Phil Murphy in November. Murphy is running unopposed in the Democratic primary. New Jersey is the only state with an incumbent governor on the ballot this year.
Here’s a look at five things to watch on Tuesday. Polls are open from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m.
Legislative primaries and the power of “the line“
There are several legislative races where, for various reasons, incumbents are running without Democratic or Republican organization support and the “county line” that goes with it.
In some cases, that’s because assemblymembers wanted to move up to the Senate but didn’t win over party officials in those districts. Among those members is Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), who’s running in the 37th District against her longtime Assembly running mate, the party-backed Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen), to succeed retiring Sen. Loretta Weinberg. In the 20th District, and Assemblymember Jamel Holley (D-Union), could lose party support for reelection because of his promotion of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and his decision to launch a long shot primary bid against state Sen. Joe Cryan (D-Union).
In the 13th District, Assemblymember Serena DiMaso (R-Monmouth) found herself on the wrong side of Monmouth GOP Chair Shaun Golden and is now running “off-the-line.” In the 26th District, Assemblymember BettyLou DeCroce (R-Morris) lost the line in her native Morris County — which dominates the district — to Christian Barranco, a Pompton Lakes council member.
The biggest chance of an off-the-line victory may come from a non-incumbent in South Jersey’s 2nd District, where Seth Grossman, a far right activist who in 2018 won an off-the-line congressional primary, is running against former Assemblymember Vince Polistina to succeed the retiring state Sen. Chris Brown (R-Atlantic).
These races come as progressives have drawn increasing attention to the power of the “county line,” which bestows advantageous ballot positions to party-endorsed candidates by putting them in the same column as other party-backed candidates in an easy-to-find portion of the ballot. Those not endorsed by the party sometimes find themselves lumped together in obscure portions of the ballot known as “Siberia.”
It might be a Catch 22 for progressives. If Huttle, for instance, wins off the line, their preferred candidates triumphs, but it doesn’t help their case that the line is such an unfair, formidable force.
The Trump vote in the GOP gubernatorial primary
Jack Ciattarelli, the frontrunner for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, is a mainstream Republican and, like a lot of them, has a complicated history when it comes to backing former President Donald Trump. In the early days of Trump’s 2016 candidacy, Ciattarelli condemned him and called him a “charlatan.” But after Trump became the nominee and then was elected president, Ciattarelli gradually began speaking favorably about him and has repeatedly said he he approved of many of Trump’s policies.
Of the three other candidates seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination, two of them — Phil Rizzo, a real estate developer and former pastor, and Hirsh Singh, an engineer — have run as more pro-Trump alternatives to Ciattarelli, associating themselves with allies of the former president and echoing the false claims Trump won the 2020 election. The fourth candidate, former Somerset County Freeholder Brian Levine, has taken a Ciattarelli-like approach to Trump but has spent virtually no money.
There’s been no independent polling of the race, so it’s hard to tell how much the pro-Trump message is resonating with Republican primary voters. The good news for Ciattarelli is that he has the “line” in every county that has one — which is most of them — and Rizzo and Singh are likely to cut into each other’s votes.
Still, Ciattarelli is feeling some pressure. He has put out negative advertisements against both pro-Trump candidates and in a debate two weeks ago aggressively went after Singh.
Watch to see if Ciattarelli cracks 50 percent against his opponents or gets by with a plurality. In a similarly-crowded Democratic primary in 2017, Murphy wound up with slightly less than 50 percent, and it wasn’t a problem for him in the general. But would Ciattarelli have trouble winning over the most hardcore Trump supporters in a general election when he’ll have to keep even more distance from the former president?
Mail-in versus in-person turnout
Last year, New Jersey required counties keep only about half the usual number of polling places open, and those who did vote in person, with the exception only of disabled voters, had to cast provisional ballots.
Will vote-by-mail take a larger, more permanent hold in New Jersey elections after most New Jerseyans used it last year, when the system was already expanding even before the pandemic, or will most voters revert to in-person voting?
Poll worker pay bump
While the pandemic is subsiding, county elections officials say Covid-19 has still made it difficult to find people to work the polls.
But a law that was introduced, passed and signed by Murphy last week has helped, elections officials say. It doubles poll workers’ pay from $200 to $400 for a full day, or from $100 to $200 for a half day. It also loosens poll worker residency restrictions and allows plainclothes members of the New Jersey National Guard to also serve as workers.
Al Barlas, a member of the Essex County Board of Elections and the chair of the county GOP, said the new law has helped recruit workers.
“It was a problem because I think some folks are still nervous about Covid, especially considering the average poll worker is typically a senior [citizen],” he said. “We have seen an uptick in people wanting to participate in the process because there’s more money available.”
“The $400 has them coming in droves,” Hunterdon county Clerk Mary Melfi said.
The Democratic mayoral primary in Camden is probably the most closely-watched municipal race in the state.
Few people give insurgents a change against interim Mayor Vic Carstarphen, who’s backed by the powerful Camden County Democratic machine and has been endorsed by prominent Democrats from around the state, including Murphy.
It’s relatively rare to see a hard fought contest in Camden, which the machine has an iron grip on. Elton Custis, who has the backing of many progressive critics of the Democratic machine, is running as are City Council member Felisha Reyes-Morton and Luis Quinones. Many have criticized the election’s ballot design, in which Carstarphen is running in the first column while the three other candidates are grouped together in the fifth column.