As the Township Council makes the first moves toward moving municipal elections to November, governmental officials who had a hand in bringing the Faulkner Act form of government to West Windsor are weighing in.
Most seem to be in favor of moving the elections to November, when general elections are held every year.
Upon the passage of a new state law last month allowing nonpartisan municipalities to move elections from May to November, the Township Council introduced an ordinance on February 16 that would set the move in motion. A public hearing is scheduled for Monday, March 1.
Currently, in West Windsor, residents head to the polls three times each year: in November for the general elections, in April for the school elections, and in May, when they elect their municipal council representatives. Moving the municipal elections to November would save the township about $50,000 each year, according to Township Clerk Sharon Young.
For Alison Miller, who served on council from 1993 to 1999 and again from 2001 to 2005, the move makes sense for one simple reason — it saves money. That’s not to say there aren’t plausible arguments for both keeping elections in May or moving them to November.
Explaining the history behind the move, Miller said a charter commission was formed in 1991 to study the possibility of changing the form of government at that time. West Windsor operated under the Township Committee form of government, in which residents elected members of the Township Committee each year for three-year terms. Those members then selected the mayor each year.
“One of the issues we had in West Windsor was that everyone took turns being mayor, like they take turns being council president” today, Miller said. “While it makes sense for council president, residents wanted to know they’d have a mayor who would be mayor for four years. They thought it would be an advantage for long-term planning.”
Many people also liked the idea of having a nonpartisan government because they felt they voted for senators, governors, and presidents for different reasons than they voted for Township Committee members. From her own experience, Miller said, “the allies you have in the state legislature in hometown planning issues, which are the issues you are going to use when voting for a local representative, are not the same allies you have on your greater social issues and statewide and national issues.”
The charter commission recommended moving to the nonpartisan council under the Faulkner Act, with one caveat — the township would have to have elections in May. At the time, said Miller, the cost for holding an election was cheaper, and the polls were open for one hour less than they are now.
“The voters voted for the whole package — the change in the form of government from Township Committee to strong Mayor-Council, the change in government from partisan to nonpartisan — and along with that came the change of elections from November to May.”
Today, there is a drop-off in the number of residents who vote for local candidates over national and statewide candidates, said Miller. On one hand, moving the elections from May to November, one could argue, would enable residents who are unfamiliar with local issues to vote. On the other hand, candidates argue that voters are ill-informed regardless of the time they vote.
“Speaking as someone who has been a candidate five times, one of the nice things about November is that as the campaign wears on, the daylight gets shorter, and you can’t go door-to-door later into the evening; they’ll think your crazy,” said Miller.
This forces a candidate to go home and rest. In May, a candidate is more encouraged to stay out later, making campaigning much more exhausting. Also, in May candidates have to remind people to vote. There were some who just forgot that elections were taking place in May, and others forgot absentee ballots.
“With candidates from higher levels [running], West Windsor will still be electing local people in odd years, with people in higher levels getting out the vote,” she said. “It will be a little easier for local level people to get out the vote.”
Then, there is the question over whether residents will be inclined to vote for municipal representatives based on views they hold for the partisan candidates also running in the November elections.
“To me, it’s very hard to make a decision over which would be better — November or May — for all the reasons except the budgetary reason,” said Miller. “It’s a whole lot cheaper to move it to November.”
Miller also said that moving away from school elections could also benefit the municipal candidates. One year, she said, there was a higher turnout for the school election than there was for the municipal election three weeks later. “I remember people said, ‘Well, are you running for school board?’” Miller said, recalling her campaigning efforts that year. She had to tell them she was running for Township Council and explain that it was a separate election.