Mt. Laurel Township Council continues debate on potential public referendum to move municipal elections from November to nonpartisan contests in May

Republicans say a move to nonpartisan elections would benefit independent voters, while Democrats say Republicans are trying to hide their party affiliation.

Mt. Laurel residents still don’t know if a referendum will be on the ballot this November asking voters to potentially change municipal elections from partisan contests held in November to nonpartisan contests held in May.

However, that didn’t stop the topic from dominating public comments at the township’s most recent council meeting on April 22 – with most speakers declaring themselves against any change to the township’s municipal elections.

Per state law, municipalities in New Jersey have the option to hold municipal elections during the general election in November or on the second Tuesday in May.

Should a township choose to hold its municipal contests in May, those elections must be structured as nonpartisan elections, meaning candidates cannot identify themselves on the ballot as members of a given political party.

For the past several weeks, the three members of Mt. Laurel Township Council’s Republican majority have been arguing that a move to nonpartisan elections would potentially allow independent voters more of a voice in the governance of the township.

Council Republicans also believe the move to nonpartisan contests would allow voters more of an opportunity to put aside partisan issues from the state and national level, to instead focus on local issues that directly affect the township.

However, the two members of council’s Democratic minority argue proposed changes to the municipal elections are an attempt by Republicans to hide their affiliation with Republican President Trump and lower voter turnout in hopes of retaining power in town.

The township’s next election with municipal council seats on the ballot is scheduled to run concurrent with the next presidential election in November 2020, with three seats currently held by the council’s Republican majority up for a vote.

If Democrats were to flip just one of those seats, Democrats would gain control of township council.

Mt. Laurel’s Democrats recently won the two council seats they currently hold in the most recent 2018 election, defeating former Republican Councilmen Rich Van Noord and Dennis Riley.

That election allowed Democrats to break years of Mt. Laurel Republicans’ full, five-member control of council.

With Democrats’ recent electoral success on the municipal, state and national levels, Mt. Laurel’s Democratic councilmembers are questioning the timing of local Republicans’ exploration into potentially altering the township’s municipal elections.

As noted at several recent council meetings by Democratic Councilman Kareem Pritchett, when Pritchett first ran for council in 2016 and was defeated by council’s three current Republicans, elected officials made no public call at that time to change the township’s elections.

Pritchett said it was only after he, an African American, and fellow Democratic Councilman Steve Steglik, were elected last year, did council’s Republicans begin to explore changes to the township’s elections.

“My questions is, why now? This has been a partisan township for so many years during a number of a national issues – why now?” Pritchett questioned. “Why now, when you have two Democrats on the council? Why now, when you have an African American on the council?”

Steglik has also spoke against the idea of moving elections to nonpartisans contests, citing concerns of cost and low voter turnout.

Steglik also noted that if council were to hold a referendum presenting the choice to voters later this year, council would already be risking low voter turnout for the referendum itself by posing the question in the off-election year of 2019.

“Overwhelmingly, when people start coming to your meetings and start demanding you just leave things the way they are – that’s not a hard request,” Steglik said.

However, to that point, Republican Councilman Irwin Edelson said there were tens of thousands of Mt. Laurel residents – most of whom don’t or can’t attend township council meetings – who might have a different opinion on the issue.

“The voices we heard tonight we’re sincere and concerned,” Edelson said. “I hear them and I believe them … but we deserve the other 30,000 voters to have a voice here. How that’s going to happen, I don’t know. I don’t think this is over.”

Republican members of council have also noted that it was originally a resident speaking publicly during a council meeting in March who first suggested council look into the possibility of moving municipal elections.

From that suggestion, council Republicans tasked township solicitor George Morris to investigate the matter, with Morris reporting his findings at a previous council meeting on April 8.

In his research, Morris also reported that even if voters were to approve a referendum moving the township’s elections from partisan contests in November to nonpartisan contests in May, state law grants township council the power to then immediately vote – with no second referendum required – to move the contests back to November, while also having the elections retain the newly-minted, nonpartisan status.

Even though they would not be legally required to do so, all three members of council’s Republican majority voiced support for moving the township’s elections back to November in the scenario that voters approve a potential referendum to first move the elections to nonpartisan contests in May.

However, should council chose to keep elections in May if voters were to approve a potential referendum, the terms of the township’s current elected officials would simply be extended several months until May 2021 for council’s three Republicans and May 2023 for council’s two Democrats.

Republicans have also argued that moving elections back to November might assuage residents concerned about lower turnout or the cost of holding an election outside the general November ballot.

In turn, Democrats contend that even if municipal elections were still on the November ballot, a nonpartisan contest would still attract fewer voters, similar to those who fail to cast ballots board of education races and other contests further down ballot.

One of the many residents at council’s most recent meeting to speak out against any changes to Mt. Laurel’s municipal elections was Brian Sharp, who said changing to nonpartisan contest would only work to “hide” the affiliation of candidates, all the while allowing candidates to still retain those affiliations before and after election day.

“If there is truly community support for the proposed change, it should be done via petition, signed by 20 percent of the voters or about 4,000 people,” Sharp said. “Pushing through a referendum without community support, along party lines, can only continue to divide our town.”

One of the few members of public in recent weeks to speak in favor of the potential referendum at council’s most recent meeting was current Mt. Laurel MUA Board of Trustees Chairperson Cheryl Coco Capri, who has served on the MUA board in various capacities since she was appointed by township council in 2015.

Coco Capri shared sentiments in agreement with council’s current Republicans, in that she said she supported a process that would eventually leave the township with a nonpartisan election held in the month November.

“The majority of voters in this town are independent voters,” Capri said. “Let’s find out how they feel about this.”

In turn, also speaking against changes to municipal elections at council’s most recent meeting was Mt. Laurel resident and Democratic Assemblywoman Carol Murphy (NJ-7), who argued that elected officials such as she and those on council can’t “run” from federal and state issues, as those issues also still do affect residents on a local level.

“To move an election, for whatever reason, should not be based upon politics,” Murphy said. “It should be based upon the needs of the town.”

The next meeting of the Mt. Laurel Township Council is scheduled for May 6 at 7 p.m. at the township municipal building.