In a split 3-2 decision, the three Republican members of Mt. Laurel Township Council adopted an ordinance this week that would create a referendum this November where voters would be asked to approve switching municipal elections to nonpartisan contests.
Conversely, the two members of council’s Democratic minority continued to oppose any change to Mt. Laurel’s election process.
The topic has become a heated partisan debate in recent months, with council Republicans arguing the move would allow voters to focus on local topics, outside of the influence of state and national issues.
In turn, council Democrats have argued council’s three Republicans were using the move as a way hide their party affiliation and avoid running in the same party as President Trump when they’re up for reelection in 2020.
This week’s meeting followed a pattern similar to the past few council meetings, where comments from the public on the issue, for and against, dominated much of the night’s discussion.
Council’s debate on the issue stretches back to March, when a resident at a meeting questioned if council could investigate the possibility of moving municipal elections away from the November ballot.
After an investigation from the township solicitor, the solicitor determined that council could move municipal elections to May through a voter referendum.
However, such a move would officially transform the elections to nonpartisan contests, meaning candidates could not run affiliated with a political party.
Additionally, in response to concerns about low voter turnout and additional costs of holding a separate election, the solicitor also determined that in the event of successful referendum, council could then vote with its own power to move the elections back to November.
In such a vote, the elections would still retain their nonpartisan status.
The three members of council’s Republican majority have also committed to move municipal elections back to November should voters approve the referendum.
“Unfortunately, the national vitriol has reached our township, causing council and many Mt. Laurel residents great concern on what may happen to our township in the future,” Mayor Kurt Folcher said in a statement.
Should voters approve the referendum, Folcher said candidates and voters would be more focused on Mt. Laurel issues in local elections.
“Which is exactly where the focus should be,” Folcher said in a statement.
However, council Democrats have continually argued that council Republicans are only in favor of altering the township’s elections to retain political power.
As argued by Democratic Councilman Kareem Pritchett and others throughout the past several months, Mt. Laurel council has had full Republican control for several decades.
With that in mind, Democrats and others have charged that this official push to change Mt. Laurel’s elections to nonpartisan contests only began due to Pritchett and a fellow Democrat winning seats in 2018.
“There’s a reason why this change is happening, and they [Republicans] don’t want to tell you why … partisanship elected them in 2016, and he [Folcher] didn’t have a problem with it then,” Pritchett said.
Before his 2018 victory, council’s current three Republicans defeated Pritchett when he first ran for office in 2016.
Pritchett, who serves as council’s first ever African American to hold a seat, has also publicly questioned if his race could be factor in Republican’s push to change the township’s election.
Republicans repeatedly disputed that charge, most recently describing it as “ridiculous” in an official statement.
Along with Folcher, Republican Councilman Irwin Edelson and Republican Deputy Mayor Linda Bobo have also spoken in favor of moving Mt. Laurel’s elections to nonpartisan contests, with the Republicans saying than more than 40 percent of the registered voters in Mt. Laurel choose not to affiliate with a major political party.
Republicans argue more voters, not less, would become involved in local matters if elections were nonpartisan contests and “machine politics, party bosses and crony capitalism” were eliminated.
“We are pleased that this referendum will now be in the hands of Mt. Laurel’s voters and trust that they will consider it carefully and capably make a decision either way,” Bobo said in a statement.
Similar to Pritchett, Democratic Councilman Stephen Steglik has also voiced his opposition to altering municipal elections, noting that similar nonpartisan elections on the November ballot, such as those for local boards of education, still see a reduction in voter participation.
“I’m not in favor of this … and I hope you’re educating your neighbors on the issue as well,” Steglik said to those at this week’s council meeting.
Adding to the mix, lawmakers on the state level are also considering legislation that could potentially override council’s ability to even hold such a referendum as it was currently adopted.
That legislation was authored by New Jersey Seventh Legislative District Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, a Democrat and resident of Mt. Laurel.
The legislation would increase the threshold for the creation of referendums that alter the partisan nature of municipal elections by requiring a vote of at least two-thirds of a full municipality’s governing body – four members in the case of Mt. Laurel’s five-seat council.
Current law only requires a simple majority to initiate such referendums.
This legislation was approved by the full state Assembly and Senate a few days prior to Mt. Laurel’s meeting this week, but the Senate rescinded the vote.
However, that legislation could be acted upon once again later this week and eventually signed by the governor.
The assemblywoman believes that should Gov. Murphy sign the legislation into law before Aug. 16, it would block Mt. Laurel’s referendum, as Aug. 16 is the deadline for Burlington County Clerk JoAnne Schwartz, also a Democrat, to place a municipal referendum on the November election ballot.
With the potentially new law theoretically in effect before Aug. 16, Mt. Laurel would not have had two-thirds of its council vote to the place the referendum on the November ballot.