New Jersey voters uphold status-quo in Tuesday’s election

New Jersey’s voting looked very different Tuesday

But what election results are known so far were what was expected, at least at the federal level.

Because of the relaxed voting rules the state put in place due to Hurricane Sandy, displaced voters who sought to cast a ballot by email or fax do not even need to return their ballots until Friday at noon and those ballots will not be counted until at least 8 p.m. that night.

The Secretary of State’s office, which oversees elections, has no idea how many ballots that will be, but it could total in the thousands. It is also likely that the number of provisional ballots cast was higher than usual and at least a few locations reportedly used paper ballots, which will also delay the final vote tally.

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But these late ballots are not likely to change the vote outcomes because none of New Jersey’s races appeared to be close.

No upsets

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, and the state’s 11 incumbent House members won re-election. Menendez easily defeated his GOP challenger, state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, by a margin that stood at 59 percent to 40 percent with most precincts repporting.

As expected, Donald M. Payne, Jr. won the only open seat, that of his late father, to split the state’s congressional delegation equally. New Jersey currently has seven Democrats and six Republicans, but lost one seat, that of Democratic Rep. Steve Rothman of Bergen County, due to the redrawing of congressional lines in accordance with the 2010 U.S. Census.

Payne, who will take office immediately, having also won the special election for his father’s unexpired term in the current 10th District, pledged to protect the social programs that have been at the core of Democratic policy over the past 80 years. The night’s results show “we don’t need to go back, we can go forward,” he declared.

New Jerseyans chose President Obama over Mitt Romney for president, which was anticipated, to help the president win reelection. Obama’s margin in the Garden State as of midnight was 57 percent to 41 percent.

Three incumbent assemblywomen from different parts of the state won special elections to keep their unexpired terms, as well.

Statewide ballot questions

Also approved, as expected, were a $750 million higher education bond issue and a constitutional change allowing the state to cut sitting judges’ salaries by requiring them to pay more for pension and health benefit costs. The last statewide polls on those two ballot questions had shown broad support; voters in all but one county – the heavily Republican Warren County — approved the proposals.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, D-Essex, thanked voters for their support of the bond issue, saying the support for the state’s colleges is long overdue.

“This will not only help our institutions of higher learning attract and retain students, and in turn, industries looking for a capable workforce, but it will create jobs as improvement projects get underway,” she said. “It’s an all-around win.”

Hurricane created challenges

In a way, the lack of any real contests might have been a blessing, given all the controversy surrounding the emergency voting changes instituted by the state.

“To paraphrase John Steinbeck, the best laid plans often go astray,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “It appears clear that the full ramifications of the fax and email ballot requests were not clearly thought through and we may well end up litigating this election far into the future.”

While no statewide numbers were available, turnout was reportedly heavy in many places and the number of people requesting email/fax ballots overwhelmed some clerk’s offices.

In celebrating his victory at 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Menendez applauded all those who voted, even those who did not support him, for “affirming our democracy.”

Indeed, many voters said they would not let Sandy stop them from casting ballots. That was the case in the seaside Monmouth County community of Belmar, where homes, businesses and the boardwalk were decimated and at least 70 percent still lacked electricity Tuesday.

“We have so little control over anything right now,” said one Romney voter. “That made it all the more important to me to come here and take advantage of our ability to exercise control over something this meaningful.”

Normally, the borough’s 3,600 registered voters cast ballots at one of four polling places, but yesterday they all voted at borough hall, where they could also receive food and meet with representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A team of brothers with fond childhood memories of the Shore served free hot meals – hot dogs and chili – to residents. Most voters interviewed there expressed satisfaction with the voting process, praising elected officials for their communication and organization efforts and their compassion and accessibility.

“We haven’t had power in nine days,” said one 24-year-old Obama voter. “We’ve been walking around every day looking for hot food. But I wanted to come today because I feel this is a very important election and I wanted to shake elected officials’ hands.”

On the other hand, voters in Readington in Hunterdon County, where a generator provided power to the firehouse that accommodated relocated polling places, wanted to talk less about politics and more about Jersey Central Power & Light having not yet restored their power .

“We still don’t have power and we live right down the street,” said Mary Beth Hickey. “No one has reached out and contacted us. I don’t know whether this is my polling place or not.”

Commiserating with neighbors and business owners, Marylou Gillikin said it seemed the power company “just forgot about us.” She and her husband have a generator, but became discouraged by the cost of operating it continually in the wake of the storm, “so we’re staying with my family in Springfield.”

Coming back to the area for work made it simple to swing by to vote and pick up some things from the house, Gillikin said. “Things could be worse” in Readington, but the prolonged outages have residents wondering about the utility’s capability, she said.

While it was initially unclear what affect the storm would have on voting and results, both strongholds for the GOP – Monmouth and Ocean counties — and Democrats – Hudson and Essex — appeared to have been hurt equally by Sandy, prompting Dworkin to call Sandy “an equal opportunity pain for both sides.”

It didn’t hurt either party. But the presence at the top of the ticket of Obama and Menendez, who won by comfortable margins, didn’t help Democrats running for Congress in a state where voters are known for ticket-splitting.

Runyon returns to Washingtons

In what was supposed to have been the closest race in the state, Rep. Jon Runyan , R-3rd, defeated Democrat Shelley Adler, who ran an aggressive campaign. Late night on Tuesday, Runyan had 52 percent of the vote, which, if it holds, would be a margin smaller than the 10 points predicted by the last poll, taken in early October. Adler did not get a bump from Obama and Runyan had the advantages of incumbency and money — he had outraised Adler by almost 2-to-1, according to their mid-October financial reports.

“We’ve done it again with all your help, so thank you very much,” said Runyan, speaking to supporters at his election night headquarters. “The election is over and let’s get back to work at turning this country around.”

Like other candidates, Runyan talked about Sandy’s devastation.

“I had an 80-year old man crying, saying, ‘I can’t believe these people care this much,'” Runyan said. “This kind of stuff really opens your eyes and it’s refreshing to see. It’s time to carry that to Washington and fix the bipartisan mess.”

A pair of the Democrats who were reelected said they hope Obama’s second term will feature a better relationship with the House.

“I think there will be less sabotage by the Republicans,” said U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-12th. “They will understand that with the President in his final term, they’d be sabotaging themselves” for the 2016 race. Although Democrats were surging in House campaigns before the President’s poor performance in the first debate, Holt said House Democrats have been resigned to remaining in the minority “for some time now.”

“I can work being in the minority,” he said. “A minority can’t work if you have the type of majority we’ve had the past two years, when the Tea Party took over the House.”

“We have to show more unity for the sake of the country,” said U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-6th. “We have the fiscal cliff,” a self-created budgetary threat to vital programs, “and we have to address it through a bipartisan process.”

Colleen O’Dea is an editor at large for NJ Spotlight. Tara Nurin and Joe Tyrrell contributed to this report.

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