Assembly Elections Tuesday, the Last Before Redistricting
Voters will decide in Tuesday’s election who will be in the state Assembly for the next two years, in the last of five state legislative election cycles to be conducted under the maps drawn after the 2010 census.
Legislative district boundaries will be redrawn after next year’s census, to rebalance their populations. That could lead to more interesting elections in 2021 – but Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Callahan Harrison says there are no such wild cards this year.
“The districts are as old as they possibly can be, and so for many legislators that means that their incumbency is set in stone. It is quite strong,” Harrrison said. “They know their constituents. Their constituents know them.”
Harrison said that in elections in years that end in 1 – 2001, 2011 and so forth – there “tends to be a bit of tumult … a bit more competition” because as district boundaries are adjusted, lawmakers can be matched with unfamiliar constituents, perhaps mostly from another party. Some legislators choose to retire.
But Tuesday’s election is run under the same boundaries used in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017.
“In these elections, one of the things that we’re certain of is that the districts have been the way they are for almost 10 years now, and incumbents are running primarily as known commodities,” Harrison said.
The map used for the 2010s elections was the second in a row drawn by Democrats and selected by the court-appointed tiebreaker and has further cemented the party’s control of the Legislature, which dates to 2004.
Changes in the electorate have added to the party’s advantage. Democrats have added six Assembly seats since the 2011 elections and could tack on more Tuesday. They have added two Senate seats, one through a party switch, but could lose one in a special election in South Jersey.
With most outcomes determined by redistricting, and four election cycles baking in those advantages, half the money in this year’s races has been spent in just five of the 40 districts: the 1st, 21st, 8th, 11th and 16th districts.
“There’s so many districts that are actually really safe districts, so it doesn’t really matter who’s running,” said Seton Hall University political scientist Matthew Hale. “It’s either the Republican or the Democrat are pretty much dialed in to win.”
"There’s a couple races where it’s gotten hot and heavy, but overall most people I think are going to say: What election?" Hale said.
When the Assembly last topped the ballot in 2015, turnout was a record low 22%. Harrison doesn’t expect a new record this year because the state’s new vote-by-mail rules send automatically ballots to more people, making it likely that people who typically only take part in federal elections will vote.
“And so I think that you’re going to see a little bit of an uptick in new state voters this year. Not a large one, but a little bit,” Harrison said.
According to the New Jersey Globe, county clerks had received nearly 228,000 vote-by-mail ballots as of last Friday – twice as many as were received in the 2015 election, when Assembly races last topped the ballot, and well over the 183,000 in the 2017 gubernatorial and legislative elections.
In the 2015 election, around 1.17 million votes were cast overall, including at the polls.
Democrats enter Tuesday’s election holding two-thirds of the seats in the Legislature. The GOP’s Assembly leader, Jon Bramnick, is at risk of losing his race as partisan allegiances shift in suburban Union County. The party’s Senate leader, Tom Kean Jr., is running for Congress.
Hale said that even if the Republican Party loses more ground Tuesday, it could find a new beginning.
“If Republicans are able to solidify a safe seat, that might be a way for a Republican to take leadership of the party and move it in a different direction,” Hale said.
“If Republicans have less seats, but they’re more solid seats, that might be an opportunity for a Republican assemblyman or Republican senator who might be able to take a leadership role and do some things to turn around the Republican Party,” he said.