The Mercer County Board of Elections will hold a special meeting tonight to present a proposed map of election districts for the new united Princeton.
The meeting, which begins at 7:30 p.m. at the township municipal building courtroom, is the second of three public meetings scheduled to discuss the voting districts in the consolidated Princeton.
One of the key questions in the redistricting process is what to do with the voting districts that include Princeton University students. Officials want to make voting more convenient and less confusing for students. They also want neighborhoods currently divided by the borough and township municipal boundary to be united.
“People have expressed concerns about redistricting over the past several months and we didn’t get a lot of good answers to their questions,” Anton Lahnston, chairman of the consolidation commission, told the county board last week. “This is really breaking new ground here…We don’t want to just say here are the nine borough districts and the 14 township districts, let’s just put them together and move on. We really want the board to look at the districts with a fresh perspective.”
Lahnston said a very high priority would be to look at the boundary running through the Princeton university campus and dorms. There are also issues in the Riverside neighborhood, the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, the area adjacent to the Princeton Shopping Center, the senior housing at Harriet Bryant House and Elm court, and the Battle Road and Olden Lane area.
Another question officials hope to have answered tonight is how the spring school board election will be handled. The new voting districts go in to effect after the map is approved, but consolidation does not officially take place until Jan. 1 of 2013. Currently borough residents select four members of the regional school board and township residents select five members of the 10-member board that includes a representative from sending district Cranbury. Local, county and state officials have been discussing the issue with the state Department of education, and said a few options are possible.
Last week the county board outlined the process of drawing up a new election district map and solicited public comment. Residents can also comment on the plan tonight.
Engineer Kevin Zelinsky was contracted to draw up a new election district map and is expected to present at least one or two map options tonight.
Dominic Magnolo, chairman of the Mercer County Board of Elections, said under state law the board must come up with a new election district map within 45 days of the vote to consolidate. The board has until Dec. 23 to create a new map.
“It is something the board has never experienced before in terms of dealing with consolidation,” Magnolo said, noting, however, that the board does have experience revising districts, because voting districts must fall with in certain guidelines or be revised. Because of those guidelines, even if consolidation had failed the board would still have to make changes in some of the Princeton Borough and Princeton Township voting districts.
If less than 250 registered voters or more than 750 registered voters in one district voted in the last two elections, the board is required to redraw the election districts.
“We have done that throughout Mercer County,” Magnolo said. “If you look at the last two general elections and the number of people who voted, we would have to redraw a new town map anyway.”
“The board is very cognizant of input from the consolidation committee,” Magnolo said. “The goal to keep neighborhoods together. There is no more borough and township. It is one Princeton. Our goal is to keep the election districts compact and manageable.”
District One, which is dominated by Princeton University students, has 1,902 registered voters. But unless it is a presidential election year, only five percent of the voters actually vote.
“Maybe 100 people come out,” Zelinsky said. “These two extremes fly in the face of the statute. It’s a challenge. We’d like to look at that and clean it up. A lot of the districts in the borough and township are hitting that minimum, but in District 12 in the township, only 68 people came out to vote, for example. We need to look at all the districts and make sure they comply with the minimum and maximum numbers and make sure they comply with state law.”
Peter Wolanin, the borough Democratic municipal chairman and a Princeton University alumnus, said he is concerned about the Princeton University voting districts. “The main university district should be expanded to encompass the entirety of undergraduate housing,” Wolanin said. “We’ve had extensive discussions with undergrads, and felt the turnout was dramatically suppressed and that confusion about where people vote could be alleviated if you have a polling place on campus. I’d urge the board to keep the entirety of the undergraduates on campus. The numbers are relatively low, and the changes you’d see something more in line with the 250 threshold.”
Karen Woodbridge, director of community relations at Princeton University, said her office provides students with information about voting. She submitted a letter to the county board outlining concerns about student voters. University students vote in five districts – two in the township and three in the borough – and each has a separate polling place, with only one on campus. Woodbridge agreed with Wolanin that one district for all on-campus undergraduates would be helpful.
“In some cases the municipal boundary intersects a dorm, and a move across the hall means a student is living in a different town,” she said. “It’s a confusing situation.”
She also said the university could be helpful in reviewing voter registration lists, because many students listed as registered voters in a district probably have graduated and moved off campus . They remain on the voter rolls unless the don’t vote in two consecutive federal elections. Rutgers University officials work with the superintendent of elections to review the voter rolls, and Princeton would be willing to do the same, Woodbridge said.
Magnolo said the board also considers new housing developments that are in the pipeline when determining the district boundaries. Marvin Reed of the Princeton Regional Planning Board said about five new housing developments are slated to be developed over the next three or four years. The elections board will review such developments and incorporate some of them depending on when they are expected to be built.
In New Jersey, a committeeman and committeewoman are chosen for each voting district in a municipality, for each political party. These committee members represent the town in the county party organization. John Durban, the Princeton Township Democratic municipal chairman, said he hopes the number of voting districts in the united Princeton will not be reduced.
“Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, your influence will be diminished by having the number of voting districts reduced,” he said. “We are hoping you will stay as close to 23 districts as possible.”
Asked how the transition to a merged municipal committee would take place, Magnolo said the merged municipal committee would go in to effect after the new election district map is approved. The county board is slated to approve the final map at a 5:30 p.m. meeting Dec. 19 at the township municipal building.
An earlier edition if this story incorrectly reported that the school board has nine members with three from the borough an six from the township.