Rescuing the Jewish voice in NJ elections
Despite representing only 2 percent of the population of the United States, Jews have become one of the most hotly contested constituencies over the past few decades. This interest can be traced to the 1980 election, when, coming on the heels of the highly successful but not immediately popular Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, Ronald Reagan earned almost 40 percent of the traditionally liberal-voting community’s vote. More than a decade later, Bill Clinton was able to get 80 percent of the Jewish vote, in part thanks to reports that James Baker, one of President George H.W. Bush’s top advisers, had said “F*** the Jews. They don’t vote for us anyway.”
Since then, Democratic presidential candidates have been able to consistently claim between 75 and 85 percent of the Jewish vote. Yet despite their annual electoral failures in this regard, the Republican Party continues to fight hard for every Jewish vote and the Democratic Party refuses to take any Jewish vote for granted. That is, except in New Jersey. Here, Democratic and Republican insiders have conspired for decades to draw congressional and legislative district maps, which all but guarantee reelection for nearly every incumbent congressperson and legislator in the state. Redistricting has rigged primary election ballots in favor of establishment candidates to the point that most county, state, and federal primary and general elections are won and lost before a single vote has been cast.
Historically, what has made the Jewish vote so important is that our voter turnout rates are two to five times that of the community at large, and because our geographic presence is often highly concentrated. Even if we are only 2 percent of the population, in some cities and towns in New Jersey, we can be as much as 5-10 percent of the population, if not more. And if our voter turnout rate is two or more times than that of other constituencies, our ability to impact general elections increases dramatically.
However, that impact is reduced dramatically in a state like New Jersey, where Democratic and Republican political machines have rigged the game in every way imaginable, virtually eliminating competitively contested general elections at the congressional and legislative district level through their collusive gerrymandering efforts. In 2012, President Barack Obama and Sen. Robert Menendez, both Democrats, won the state by nearly 20 percentage points, but the state’s 12 congressional districts were split evenly by party. In 2013, Gov. Chris Christie won the state by over 20 percentage points, but his fellow Republicans did not experience a net increase in their number of legislative seats.
If Jewish Democrats and Republicans who live in the state’s seventh and 12th congressional districts want to be able to have an impact on New Jersey’s elections once again, they must put aside their partisan identities during primary election season and register as members of the party that has a competitive primary election.
In 2012, there was some controversy during the ninth district’s Democratic primary election tussle between incumbent Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. and Steven Rothman, who essentially had been gerrymandered out of his own district in Bergen County. A letter signed by Orthodox rabbis in Englewood and Passaic encouraged their congregants, many of whom were registered Republicans, to register as Democrats and vote for Rothman, who was seen as a much stronger supporter of Israel than Pascrell.
However, despite restrictions on political activity by 501(c)(3) nonprofits, there should be nothing controversial about Jewish community leaders educating their members on how New Jersey politics operates and how uncompetitive elections disenfranchise Jewish voters as much if not more than others, because of our higher turnout rates.
Unfortunately, it is too late in this primary election cycle for registered Democrats and registered Republicans to change their party affiliation prior to the June 3 primary election. However, it is not too late for unaffiliated voters who have not voted in primary elections where they currently live. This is an important distinction, because many voters (even Jewish voters) who identify as Democrats and Republicans are not currently registered as Democrats and Republicans and do not generally vote in primary elections.
If you are an unaffiliated Jewish voter, particularly one who lives in either the seventh or 12th congressional districts, I strongly urge you to vote in a contested primary election on June 3, regardless of the political party that you normally support. Our community’s political strength comes from our voter turnout rates being greater than any other. When we put our partisan loyalties ahead of our loyalty to the Jewish community at large, we minimize our power.