by Linda M. Czipo
While most of the news media coverage has been largely (dare I say overly?) focused on the presidential election that’s over a year away, New Jersey has an important election taking place next week. This post is a plea to put aside the presidential hype for a few days and focus on an election much closer to home.
On November 3, New Jerseyans will go to the polls to elect all 80 members of the General Assembly as well as hundreds of local township officials, board of education representatives and more.
Why should you care more about this – at least right now – than the 2016 race for the highest elected office in the country? Simple: because state and local representatives enact far more legislation than our leaders do in Washington, and these actions affect your everyday life.
As our friends at the National Council of Nonprofits often point out, “the action is in the states.” They tell us that in 2013-14, the United States Congress passed just 296 pieces of legislation (including the naming of post offices), while state legislatures across the country enacted nearly 65,000 bills over the same two-year period.
In the State of New Jersey alone, 90 bills were passed and signed into law in 2014, and 283 bills were enacted in 2013, for a total of 373. Let me repeat that: in 2013-2014, more bills were enacted in the State of New Jersey than in the United States Congress – even though our legislators serve part-time and despite a governor and legislature led by opposing parties. Yet New Jersey’s voter turnout, especially in non-federal election years, has been alarmingly low in recent years and dropping.
It may sound obvious, but our ability to reach and build partnerships with local and state officials is much stronger than it is at the federal level. If we ignore the state and local elections in favor of the national frenzy, we do so at our own peril. If we want our officials to reflect the issues that we care about, we need to hold them accountable – starting with voting.
There’s been a lot of legitimate concern expressed about the influence of money in politics. Until (and even after) the problems with campaign finance are addressed, our best defense is to be informed, and to vote.
The more regularly we vote – and the more our officials know that we’ll be voting – the more influence we’ll have, and the greater our public policy clout will be.
While 501(c)(3) public charities may not attempt to influence the outcome of any election for public office, we CAN work in a nonpartisan manner to get out the vote – and it’s not too late to do so this year. Nonprofit Vote has a wide array of tools and tip sheets to help non-profits safely conduct legal voter engagement activities and get-out-the-vote activities; state-specific voting procedures are here. The Center for Non-Profits also has a charities and elections fact sheet with links to more resources.
You can find information about the State Assembly races on the websites of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey and NJ Spotlight. Not sure if you’re registered, where your polling place is, or how to get a voting by mail application? The New Jersey Division of Elections website will tell you.
Voting can be contagious. Tell your colleagues, volunteers, and constituents that you’ll be voting, and encourage them to vote as well (be sure not to imply any endorsement of a particular candidate, and keep everything nonpartisan). Elevate the importance of voting to the status it deserves.
We owe it to ourselves and our communities to raise our voices. Don’t miss your chance to flex your Election Day muscles, and don’t wait until next year’s presidential election. Vote November 3.
Linda M. Czipo is executive director of the Center for Non-Profits, New Jersey’s statewide umbrella organization for the charitable community. Through advocacy, public education, technical assistance and cost-saving member services, the Center works to build the power of New Jersey’s non-profit community to improve the quality of life for the people of our state.