CAMDEN, NJ — Since May former City Councilman Ali Sloan El and longtime activist Vance Bowman — along with three other petitioners — have worked to collect signatures calling for Camden to consider returning to nonpartisan elections after 13 years.
The proposed ordinance - which would impact council and mayoral elections - will be reviewed by the City Council during the Sept. 8 public meeting and either adopted or placed on the November ballot to be voted on by the community.
In Camden, which has a population of roughly 77,000, approximately 7,000 voters cast their ballot last November. Under the current system, according to activists - who have set up petition tables during social justice rallies, non-profit press conferences, and other events in the city - candidates backed by the South Jersey Democratic political machine are provided a leg up when it comes to ballot placement during every June primary. Independents, they claim, are as a result deterred from participating at all.
“It’s important we make this push, especially during these turbulent times,” Sloan El, one of the authors of the petition, told TAPinto Camden.
Those in favor of nonpartisan elections point to the state’s ballot design, claiming it makes for an unfair process. When voting in Camden County, like 19 other counties in New Jersey, residents are presented a slate of candidates endorsed by the Democratic or Republican Party. The list, which lays out the “county” or “party” lines, appears as a vertical or horizontal line of names. Anyone not on that line can appear in any of the other columns or rows.
Theo Spencer, who is running for the Camden school board this year, says when he ran for mayor in 2013 against Dana Redd, his name appeared in Column 7 with empty rows running from 2-6.
“The average voter thought she wasn’t running against anybody,” said Spencer, among the five petitioners who organized the document.
Overall having control over the optics of the ballot, Spencer and others say, provides party chairs the opportunity to control who wins the primary.
“They’ve been picking candidates loyal to the county office, not loyal to residents of the city of Camden,” said Sloan El, noting that the petition of roughly 2,200 signatures was filed Monday to the City Clerk's office. “If these candidates were loyal to the residents, the housing wouldn’t look like it does, young people wouldn’t be struggling for jobs like they are. The way it’s set up now, they can’t be held accountable because the people didn’t put them in office.”
Sloan El's advocacy for voters extends beyond nonpartisan elections. While collecting signatures, he joined activists in registering 175 new voters - unaware of recent legislation allowing for anyone on probation or parole to vote.
In 2007, Sloan El plead guilty after taking $36,000 in bribes from an FBI agent while ensuring he would direct public work to a contractor. He spent 18 months in jail.
A look back
The city operated under nonpartisan elections between 1960 and 1992, as well as 1996 to 2007.
“The voters changed from nonpartisan to partisan years ago and the simple reason were that nonpartisan [elections] are in May and moving it would place the burden on taxpayers,” Mayor Frank Moran said over the phone. “We also found there was less voter turn-out for nonpartisan than partisan. At the end of the day I’m democratic and a partisan person but I ran for the people of my city, and we believe the voters already spoke out [on this].”
Moran estimates that it would cost the city upwards of $100,000 to hold a separate nonpartisan election - which isn't the case with the June and November elections.
Sloan El says that in 2007 lawmakers in the city were able to change elections to partisan after putting it on the ballot and purporting $80,000 would be salvaged.
Spencer believes the real opposition lies in what the change would mean for those in office.
“The reason they’re against it is they benefit, plain and simple,” Spencer said. “The thing about nonpartisan is the candidates involved can’t ride the coattails of the ticket.”
Those leading the nonpartisan petition, along with 70 volunteers, collected over the required amount, which was 10% of the voters in the last state assembly election. The city clerk was not immediately available for comment regarding whether it will be voted on next month.
Last year a ballot question surrounding the return of elected school advisory board members proved successful, despite opposition from some in official positions including Moran.
According to Spencer, if the city shifts to nonpartisan it will remain in place for a decade.