by Jake Aferiat
John Birkner really liked his chances.
A former three-term mayor of a suburban New Jersey town, Birkner ran as a Democrat for a seat in the New Jersey State Assembly for the 39th District in 2019, seeking to flip a seat which hadn’t been represented by a Democrat since 1981.
Still, that didn’t deter Birkner.
Birkner was banking on a combination of anti-Trump sentiment coupled with the inroads Democrats made across New Jersey in 2018 to help carry him to victory.
“Go back to 2018 and there was a huge, huge insurgence of the percentage of Democratic voters who actually came out to vote,” Birkner said. “We looked at the congressional races — those were the ones that were important and we looked at what was going on at the national level. It was kind of a rebuke against the current occupant of the White House.”
Democrats flipped four Congressional seats in New Jersey in 2018, going from a delegation consisting of seven Democrats and five Republicans to one that now features 10 Democrats and two Republicans.
Birkner saw the same swing and momentum shift at the more granular, local level too and that is what particularly inspired confidence in him and his running mate Gerry Falotico.
The New Jersey State Assembly consists of 40 districts across the state with two members from each district being elected, so the Democrats and Republicans run on a ticket together.
“You saw Congressional seats turned over to become Democratic, but it trickled down. You just saw the Democratic base come out on all levels of government, including the local levels in towns that are traditionally Republican, where we started to see some democratic local officials become elected,” Birkner said.
Those feelings and hopes alone weren’t going to be enough to propel Birkner and Falotico to victory, though.
Ultimately people would need to act on that sentiment and be inspired by the momentum and head to the polls and Birkner knew this.
In the end, voters did not turn out in the necessary numbers and Birkner and Falotico lost to the incumbent Republicans.
“I have to be honest with you, I miscalculated tremendously what was going on as far as who was going to come out to vote,” Birkner said. “My theory was ‘good god, this guy in the White House is such a hot mess, Republicans have nothing to be enthusiastic about coming out to vote for. I thought we had a great shot at turning this district, considering we’d had two really good candidates, two real viable candidates with a body of work that supported them as such. And I just grossly underestimated the Republican support that came out to vote and the Democrats that stayed home.”
The 39th District encompasses 20 municipalities in Bergen County and three in neighboring Passaic County and as of Feb. 1, 2020 has 167,300 registered voters.
While turnout didn’t favor Birkner in his race, the voters of the 39th District turned out at a much higher rate than their fellow Garden State counterparts.
108,691 votes were cast out of the 167,300 registered voters, meaning nearly 65 percent of the district’s voters cast a vote in the 2019 election compared to just 27 percent statewide.
Birkner’s election was in 2019, though.
It didn’t coincide with any midterm, gubernatorial or Presidential election and is what’s dubbed an “off-off year” election.
As a result, turnout was down dramatically in the legislative elections.
In 2017 when there was also New Jersey’s most recent legislative election, it also coincided with the gubernatorial election and 124,885 votes were cast for the State Assembly out of the 157,889 voters, or a total of 79 percent.
In November there is a major election on the horizon, which generally bodes well for turnout.
Just over 55 percent of eligible voters cast their vote for President in 2016.
But there is evidence, both empirical and anecdotal, that neither Donald Trump nor presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden are tremendously popular nor that they energize many people.
Neither Carson Weis nor James Gunther, two lifelong Bergen County residents, plan to vote in the upcoming election, but it’s not exclusively because of their particular feelings about either candidate, Trump or Biden.
Weis doesn’t follow politics much and that’s informing his decision not to vote whereas Gunther’s situation is a bit different than most people’s.
Gunther has opinions on certain issues and policies, but feels he’s not at liberty to voice them either publicly or by voting because of his status in the United States Navy.
All that matters is that he or she was elected.James Gunther
“I can’t be as public as a civilian even though I might have opinions,” the 18-year old Gunther said. “It’s not that it bothers me, it’s just a matter of keeping to yourself. I feel like I’m kind of representing the Navy when I speak, so it’s all about representing them well and not compromising anything.”
Another reason Gunther is actively choosing not to vote is out of respect for whoever the president might be, as he and his fellow service members typically aren’t allowed to worry about who’s in office and who’s giving a military directive and simply tasked with following it.
In Gunther’s eyes there’s also an expected shroud of secrecy attached with serving.
“All that matters is that he or she was elected. We don’t have the responsibility or the purpose to question who’s giving an order,” Gunther said. “We’re all volunteers and so that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to question things but it does mean you’re not allowed to say no. So it’s like yeah you can have your opinions about a mission or something, but you’re gonna listen and you’re not gonna be public about it.”
Meanwhile, Weis, 20, said he simply doesn’t feel as though his vote carries much weight on the presidential level.
“I don’t really think that my vote really matters. And in the presidential election, at the end of the day, the electoral college is going to do what it does without my input. So I don’t really think it’s even worth it for me,” Weis said.
In Weis’ case, there’s both a disillusionment and a level of disinterest in politics that’s driving his decision not to vote as well.
“We’re not really a swing state. So not that I’m Democrat or Republican — I really don’t follow politics at all, like I honestly don’t know the first thing about it — but say I were to vote for a Republican, it wouldn’t matter,” Weis said.
Though Weis is right and New Jersey may not be much of a swing state, Birkner’s part of the Garden State has dealt with decades of Republican domination.
In his eyes, Democrats can win and retake control, but a lot needs to go in their favor.
“With the right candidates and the right message, absolutely a Democrat can win. But the stars need to really align,” Birkner said. “It’s also about turning the independents. The diehard, stick-in-the wall Republicans aren’t switching their votes and don’t really care what Trump does.”