Just days before a controversial proposal that supporters say will remove politics from local government by referendum is set to be introduced by the Township Council, a lawmaker has introduced a bill that would require the collection of a significant amount of signatures to advance the measure.
The council proposal aims to switch elections in Mount Laurel from partisan — where candidates are identified by political party — to nonpartisan, where candidates are not identified by political party, and must be clearly offset from party lines on any ballot.
The only way for a municipality to do so is by holding a referendum, putting it to the voters to decide. An ordinance to initiate the referendum to be placed on November’s ballot is on the council’s Monday meeting agenda for introduction.
Since the idea was first discussed by the Republican-controlled council back in March, it has been met with strong opposition from both local and state Democratic officials, who’ve called it voter suppression and allege that the move is only in the self interest of the Republicans, who do not wish to be affiliated with President Donald Trump in the 2020 election, when their seats expire and they are up for re-election.
Mayor Kurt Folcher has defended the proposal, arguing that politics should not play a role in local government and that at no cost to the township, why not propose the question to the public and let the voters decide.
Democratic Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, a Mount Laurel resident, spoke out against the switch to nonpartisan elections at the April 22 council meeting, and on Thursday, she introduced a bill that would require a voter petition signed by at least 25 percent of the votes cast in the municipality at the last General Assembly election, or the approval of an ordinance by at least two-thirds of the full council, in order to initiate a referendum on the switch. Murphy is married to Michael Muller, chair of the Mount Laurel Democratic Committee and leader of the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee.
Under the current law, a referendum can be initiated by 10 percent of the votes cast in the municipality at the last General Assembly election, or by a simple majority of the council.
In the last General Assembly election, held in 2017, Mount Laurel had 12,820 residents vote. Under Murphy’s proposal, 3,205 signatures or an affirmative vote by the township council of at least 4-1 would be needed to initiate a referendum.
Both Democratic council members, Kareem Pritchett and Stephen Steglitz, have voiced their opposition to the proposal. Folcher, Deputy Mayor Linda Bobo and Councilman Iriwn Edelson are Republican.
In a statement Friday, Murphy called the proposed switch to nonpartisan elections “shameful” and “misguided,” adding that she felt compelled to introduce the legislation because the switch would result in voter disenfranchisement.
“The idea that local government officials can place a referendum on the ballot to change their form of government because of their own political calculations needs to end in the state of New Jersey,” Murphy said. “This is a serious change that they hope to squeeze through this year because without a statewide contest, we anticipate extremely low voter turnout. Mount Laurel residents deserve better and this should not happen here or anywhere in the state because democracy is sacred.”
Reached by email Friday, Folcher called the Democrats’ vocal criticism of the proposal “an orchestrated voter suppression effort” to stop Mount Laurel voters from having a say in what type of elections they prefer.
“They (Democrats) have soured the environment in the meetings to the point where everyday people don’t even want to get up and participate,” Folcher wrote. “There are a handful of partisans that are doing everything they can to stop it from happening. Step back and apply reason, putting the referendum on the ballot costs nothing and does not change the nature of Mount Laurel elections. It is THE PEOPLE (sic) that will decide what they want.”
Folcher also noted that 40 percent of Mount Laurel voters choose not to affiliate with any political party, and that the outspokenness at meetings is not representative of township residents. Folcher said that Murphy’s proposed legislation does not change the township council’s plans to move forward with the ordinance.
“It is politicians like this that make people hate partisan politics and shines a spotlight on the reason people want change like non-partisan elections. Of all the pressing issues affecting NJ – property tax and education costs squeezing of the middle class – She wants the State Government to focus on preventing Mount Laurel residents from having a say in their government. Pitiful,” Folcher wrote in an email.
If the ordinance is adopted, Mount Laurel voters will be asked on the November ballot to answer yes or no to the question, “Shall the charter of the Township of Mount Laurel governed by the Council-Manger (Plan E) form of government be amended, as permitted under the plan, to provide for the holding of regular municipal elections in May,” according to the draft ordinance posted on the township’s website.
If approved by voters, the switch would result in the township’s election being held on the second Tuesday in May.
However, the ordinance also states that if voters approve of the switch to a nonpartisan government, the council will, by a separate ordinance, change the nonpartisan election from May to the general election held in November. Folcher, Bobo and Edelson have also stated they only want elections to be held in November.
For Murphy’s bill to become law, it would have to be approved by the state Assembly, Senate and signed by Gov. Phil Murphy.