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A push for fewer elections in N.J.

Few states have so many. The cost is high, turnout poor, say consolidation advocates. The Legislature is taking notice.

When residents of Delran go to the polls tomorrow for New Jersey's primary election, it will be their fifth vote of the year.

Like many other New Jersey residents, they voted in the presidential primary on Feb. 5. And the fire district elections on Feb. 16. And the school elections on April 15. And the municipal elections on May 13.

And the big one, the Nov. 4 general election, is still five months away.

All that democracy may be too much of a good thing, says Ken Paris, the newly elected mayor, who ran on a platform of consolidating elections to save money.

"It's very costly . . . and what you see is a lot of the residents are not that interested in coming out in the small elections," Paris said a week after winning a hotly contested municipal election that drew 36 percent of Delran's 9,374 registered voters.

New Jersey has more elections than almost any other state, and some officials are pushing to combine elections to save money and increase turnout.

Pennsylvania, like many states, sets voting for all offices on two dates, the primary and general elections, Department of State spokeswoman Leslie Amorós said.

Having fewer elections increases participation, but the longer ballots may daunt voters, election experts say.

"Given the expense of running multiple elections in a jurisdiction and given that more specialized races get lower turnout, the idea of consolidation is appealing," said Bruce Cain, a University of California professor of political science and director of the school's Washington Center. "Special elections are also more susceptible to intended and unintended biases that favor one party or higher-income, better-educated voters. However, you have to balance the turnout boost of fewer elections against the drop-off effect of a lengthier ballot."

Studies of election behavior have produced "some evidence that countries with frequent elections have lower turnouts," said Michael P. McDonald, an election expert and associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University. The best example is Switzerland, with frequent elections for local offices and chronically low voter turnout, he said.

Narrowly focused elections, such as those for school or fire officials, tend to draw only voters who care a lot about those offices, McDonald said.

New Jersey took its first step toward pruning the election calendar when the Assembly last month approved a bill to move the April school elections to the November general election. (The bill also would eliminate public votes on school budgets, except on spending that exceeds a 4 percent cap on tax increases.)

Another measure, sponsored by Assemblyman Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. (D., Middlesex), would let towns move their nonpartisan municipal elections to November. The earliest that bill, Assembly Bill 351, could come to a floor vote is June 16.

"We have voter fatigue in New Jersey," said Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. (D., Camden), chief sponsor of the bill to shift the date of school board elections. "People have busy lives. They can't focus on that many election dates."

New Jersey created an extra election this year when it moved its presidential primary to Feb. 5 to try to give it more clout in the national campaign. The primary for other offices remained in June.

Voter participation is usually low for the multitude of elections. In school elections, turnout has ranged from 7.3 percent to 18.6 percent in the last 25 years. Fire district elections, held on a Saturday in February, rarely attract more than 4 percent of registered voters.

By contrast, the November election in 2004, the most recent presidential contest, brought out 73 percent of New Jersey's five million registered voters.

Supporters of combining elections argue that more voters would take part. Opponents contend that nonpartisan school, fire and municipal elections should not be combined with partisan elections.

"It's not fair for an organization that needs to get its budget passed," said Angela Bauer, clerk of the Delran Board of Fire Commissioners. "People are going to come out and just vote against everything."

The February fire district election in Delran drew 106 voters and cost $2,126, Bauer said.

The state's largest teachers' union, the New Jersey Education Association, and the school boards association support eliminating votes on budgets but oppose moving board elections to November.

"One of the many concerns is that school budgets would get swept up in partisan elections," said Steve Wollmer, spokesman for the union.

The school boards association has proposed, instead, a combined spring election for school boards, fire districts, and officials of the 87 municipalities that have nonpartisan governments.

Christopher Russo, business administrator of the Delran school district and president of the New Jersey Association of School Business Officials, said: "We think the election should be with the municipal elections or in June. We want to reduce administrative costs, and this is an administrative cost."

Delran's school election cost about $16,000, Russo said, and 1,566 votes were cast.

Delran's nonpartisan municipal election, which drew 3,336 voters, cost about $25,000, township clerk Jamey Eggers said. And the town's cost for the most recent June primary was $5,739, she said.

"I'd like to see just two elections," said Paris, the newly elected mayor. "I'd support moving the fire district and school board elections to June, and the municipal election and the general election in November."

Paris estimated the savings at $40,000 to $50,000, out of a town budget of $15 million.

Roberts, the chief sponsor of the bill to shift the school elections, said elections on school budgets were not only costly but also often meaningless, since voter rejection can be overridden by the municipal government or the state education commissioner.

"For an election to be legitimate, it has to have participation and consequences," Roberts said. "And we don't have either in these school elections."