Mt. Laurel Republicans continue push toward referendum that would create nonpartisan municipal elections

Republicans say nonpartisan contests allow a focus on local issues, while Democrats say Republicans want to hide their party affiliation in rough election year.

A partisan divide remains among the members of Mt. Laurel Township Council when it comes to the possibility of holding nonpartisan elections for council seats.

Council Republicans say nonpartisan elections would cut down on partisan fighting and allow voters to focus on local issues that directly affect the township, while also allowing a greater chance for residents unaffiliated with political parties to win elected office.

In turn, Democrats on council say Republicans are pushing for nonpartisan elections in an attempt to retain power by distancing themselves from the unpopularity of Republican President Donald Trump and the Republican Party among residents in Mt. Laurel Township.

Currently, the three members of council’s Republican majority are scheduled for their next election in 2020 – the same year Trump is expected to top the Republican ticket.

Democrats say a move to nonpartisan elections would also cause a drop-off in the number of residents who vote in municipal elections.

With the debate raging on, council’s most recent meeting saw the three members of council’s Republican majority pass the first reading of an ordinance that would place such a referendum on the ballot for voters to decide this November.

Council’s two Democrats voted against the measure.

As outlined in state law, municipalities in New Jersey can hold referendums where residents can vote to take their partisan elections for municipal council seats held in November and move those elections to non-partisan contests to be held in May.

As it stands, Mt. Laurel Township’s current electoral system is similar to most other municipalities in New Jersey, in which elections for municipal council seats take place as partisan affairs during the November general election.

With these contests, candidates run under the banner of various political parties, such as Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, etc.

A move to nonpartisan elections would mean any candidate running for a seat for local municipal government could not be identified with a specific political party on the election ballot.

However, council Republicans say a potentially successful referendum to transform elections to nonpartisan contests in May is only half of their plan.

Should voters approve changing elections to nonpartisan contests held in May, council Republicans say they would then take advantage of additional state law that would allow council to immediately vote to move the municipal elections back to November, while still allowing municipal elections to retain the nonpartisan status granted from a successful referendum.

Of note, while the wording of the potential referendum would mention this possibility, there is nothing legally binding members of council to follow through with the additional vote.

However, should council’s Republican’s follow through with their stated desire and municipal elections do still end being held in November, council Republicans say a November contest would combat the potentially lower voter turnout and additional costs associated with a May election.

“I don’t know if it’s going to work here, but we’ll put it out,” Republican Councilman Irwin Edelson said at last week’s meeting, refereeing to his belief that voters should have the referendum put before them in November.

However, Democrats have also been questioning the timing of Republicans’ push for nonpartisan elections.

As noted by Democratic Council member Kareem Pritchett – who first ran for council in 2016 and lost against the three Republicans who are currently seated on town council – there was no public push among Republicans for any changes to the township’s electoral contests after the 2016 election.

With that in mind, Democrats have argued that council Republicans only began to look into changing the township’s elections after Pritchett, the first ever African American to hold a seat on council, ran again in 2018 and won, along with fellow Democrat Steve Steglik.

The duo’s election in 2018 broke years of full Republican control of township council and came as all Republicans fared poorly among Mt. Laurel’s voters, with Mt. Laurel voters choosing Democrats in every available race on the ballot, including U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, Burlington County freeholders and Burlington County clerk.

Steglik also has also argued that even though Mt. Laurel’s election could still end up on the November ballot, albeit as a nonpartisan contest, other nonpartisan contests on the November ballot, such as board of education elections, have still drawn fewer voters in past years compared to partisan contests.

“Statically speaking, a nonpartisan election is not good. It is a disenfranchisement by definition,” Steglik said.

Mt. Laurel Township Council is scheduled to hold a second reading, public hearing and possible final adoption on June 24 of the ordinance that would create the referendum this November to potentially alter Mt. Laurel’s elections.