By Ron Leir
Party politics – it’s the dominant part of the electoral process in many communities around the country – from the Presidential right down to the local level. As part of that process, a candidate is linked to a political party, for good or ill.
But in Bloomfield, one elected official wants to change that way of doing business.
Councilman-at-large Bernard Hamilton wants to shed the mantle of partisan elections when it comes to Bloomfield voters having to declare themselves Democrats or Republicans to vote the party line for mayor and Township Council.
“I want to have a more inclusive electoral process,” Hamilton said. “The majority of voters here are non-registered independents. People tend to flip back and forth (between the major parties) just so they can vote in primary elections.”
Then there’s the practical matter of dollars.
This year, township residents are being asked to vote in three elections: the Board of Education election/budget in April, the June primary for state offices and the November Presidential and general election – the cost of which is passed on the taxpayers, he said.
That expense can be reduced, in part, by aligning the school election with the November election so they can be on the same November ballot, Hamilton suggested.
Now that the State Legislature has cleared the way for such a shift and the governor has signed off on it, Hamilton said the change can be implemented on the local level by a resolution of the mayor and Township Council, by a public referendum or by Board of Education action.
“It’s important to be more inclusive and get more participation from the public,” he said. “Typically for our Board of Education elections, we barely get 2,000 people to come out. That’s 2.5% of our 48,000 population.”
And, Hamilton said, for municipal elections, with a turnout that averages between 8,000 and 9,000, “all you need is 600 to 700 votes to win a ward seat (on the Township Council).”
“There’s too much pressure to support candidates by joining a political party,” Hamilton said.
Currently, the local political roster on the Bloomfield governing body is exclusively Democratic, including Hamilton, and the Dems hold a 500- vote plurality over the GOP on the township party registration rolls, according to Hamilton.
“I’m a registered Democrat but I’m not backed by a machine but rather by substance,” he said.
It would be a much better system, he said, if candidates ran in non-partisan elections where they aren’t tied to a political party and they can stand on their own and articulate their positions. And, at the same time, all those independent voters can come out in one fell swoop, thereby opening up the electoral process.
“This is an issue that affects every single person in Bloomfield,” Hamilton says.
At a recent Township Council conference session, Hamilton brought up for discussion the notion of jettisoning partisan municipal elections in favor of non-partisan contests but when it came to a vote to bring the issue to the table, the matter deadlocked 3-3, with one council member absent.
Joining Hamilton in the vote were Mayor Raymond McCarthy and Second Ward Councilman Nicholas Joanow. Opposed were First Ward Councilman Eric Chalet, Third Ward Councilman Carlos Bernard and Councilman-at-large Michael Venezia.
Councilwoman-at-large Peggy O’Boyle Dunigan, recovering from knee surgery, couldn’t attend.
But Hamilton isn’t about to let the matter die.
“I’m going to bring it up again,” he says.
However, instead of forming a PAC (Political Action Committee) to push it, Hamilton’s present strategy is to “let some groundswell build. I feel Bloomfield residents are smart enough to vet this out as being in the best interests of the township.”
In the meantime, he’s asked the township attorney to research the issue.
Since the next municipal election won’t happen until 2013 – when the mayoralty and three at-large council seats are up for grabs – Hamilton has got time to make his case.