As a sleeping aid, the New Jersey Senate primary on Tuesday may have been even more effective than warm milk or counting sheep.
The blowout win of Newark mayor Cory Booker over two sitting Congressmen, Rush Holt and Frank Pallone, and the speaker of the State House, Sheila Oliver, seemed inevitable based on the polls and the relatively lackluster campaign. But even in a election where the result seemed like a fait accompli, voter turnout was startlingly low on a rainy August day in the Garden State.
Although Booker did take some dings towards the end of the campaign over his ties to a struggling dotcom company as well as a scheduled speaking trip to Iowa, he pulled out an overwhelming victory with almost 60% of the vote. There was also a Republican primary, where Steve Lonegan, the legally blind former mayor of Bogota, New Jersey (population 8,187), won handily over political novice Alieta Eck.
With over 98% of precincts reporting on Wednesday morning, only 481,847 voters had cast ballots in either the Democratic or the Republican primaries out of nearly 5.5 million registered voters. Barring a miracle where tens of thousands of votes appear out of the ether (and in New Jersey that can’t be entirely ruled out), turnout will be well under 10% of registered voters in a statewide race that received national media attention.
This marks the second major election in 2013 with record low turnout. The Los Angeles mayor’s race in June had the lowest turnout of any runoff in the city’s history. Its new mayor, Eric Garcetti, was elected with the lowest vote total of any candidate since 1933 when the city had only a third of its current population.
Off year elections are notorious for low turnout but voter participation in 2013 has been historically abysmal. With a number of major elections coming up this year, for Mayor of New York, Governor of Virginia and two more in New Jersey---both the special general election for the Senate in October and then the regularly scheduled gubernatorial and general election---this is yet another troubling indicator for voter engagement in these important contests.