Voter turnout has been historically low in New Jersey in recent years and hit its lowest level in 2015, when only 20.8 percent of registered voters showed up to the polls. But a grassroots group called the Good Government Coalition of New Jersey (GGCNJ), hopes to change that by making candidate information more accessible to citizens.
The coalition unveiled a new election information website at an Oct. 19 press conference at the New Jersey Statehouse. The group is creating candidate profiles by sending questionnaires to local and state officials seeking answers about stances on issues that might not be reported on anywhere else on the internet.
“Voters are seeing the government as non-responsive to their needs and their views,” said GGCNJ Co-founder Yael Niv. “If voters want to take part in and find out the platforms and issues of the candidates in their legislative districts so that they can make informed decisions about who to cast their ballot for, they’re in for a really bad surprise.”
Niv, ,a Princeton resident and psychology professor at Princeton University, said there are little to no resources to get information about local candidates for elected positions such as school board members and freeholders. This lack of basic information can contribute to low voter participation, she said.
“Voters often view candidates as just running their own show… they don’t care what we think, or they don’t care about constituents,” Niv said. “That erodes trust in the government. Not providing voters with information is disrespectful of their intelligence and their agency.”
Niv said the difficulty in finding information on local candidates affects how individuals vote.
“For a voter coming to the ballot, and seeing all these words and names and not knowing what these words mean — some voters don’t even know what a freeholder is — it kind of feels like your vote doesn’t really matter,” Niv said. “If no one cared to inform you enough, then the party just decides who you vote for. And that’s not how informed people should be voting.”
The candidate database gives up to three badges to candidates based on how much information they post. A candidate receives one badge for posting contact information, two badges for sharing contact information and some personal information; and three badges for sharing contact information, personal information and responses to the GGCNJ’s questions. In addition to giving candidates a platform to share details of their public service and issues they care about, the GGCNJ also asks candidates a series of questions about their stances on government transparency and ethics reform.
Niv said the database currently has information from about 30 elected officials and candidates, and that she hopes that number will grow after the November election. Curating information from candidates has had its challenges though, she said.
“We like to call on candidates to fill in their information, but one of our problems is that we cannot contact some candidates because electronic contact information is not available,” she said. “So we’re basically falling prey to the exact same problem we’re trying to solve.”
One of the first supporters of GGCNJ’s website was Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Ewing), who praised them for their efforts for focusing on the public’s interest.
“Voters don’t know enough about their candidates, or their opinions or where they stand on issues, particularly as it relates to good government,” Turner said. “As candidates running for re-election, we get questionnaires after questionnaires, but generally, they’re all about special interest, having to do with more about what we’re going to do for their industry, but not the people.”
Turner said that the more information candidates give, there’s a greater chance that voters will respond and become more likely to participate. She noted that the frequency of local elections also leads to “voter fatigue,” and that the turnout is often less than 10 percent. Turner also mentioned her sponsorship of a bill that would consolidate elections with the goal of saving taxpayer money and increasing turnout.
“These (elections) are important to voters because so much of our taxpayer money is spent on schools and fire districts,” she said. “It’s extremely important that voters be given the tools they need that will encourage them to come out and participate in this great process we have. When voters don’t turn out, they don’t get the opportunity to see how their valuable tax dollars are being spent.”
Bill Schluter (R-Pennington), a former state senator and author of the book “Soft Corruption,” also expressed his support for the database. His book focuses on ethics reforms in campaign finance, lobbying, conflicts of interest, patronage and the electoral process.
“Boss Tweed once said, ‘I don’t care who does the electing, just let me do the nominating,’” Schluter said. “It’s so true. If you see what happens in New Jersey — how tickets are put together and how slates are made — it’s a very limited situation where you don’t always get the best people.”
Niv said having centralized access to candidate information will help voters know exactly what candidates’ issues are instead of simply voting by party.
“You can realize that the school board controls a lot of money and a lot of what’s happening with your own children — we even have members of the Princeton School Board on here,” Niv said. “It’s not just about finding information, it’s about becoming part of the political system and realizing that democracy is us governing ourselves. Things are not always working fine, but we have a say.”
The GGCNJ candidate database can be accessed at http://www.ggcnj.org/candidates/