Voter turnout

Eve Venafro, 80, of Cape May Point, says she told her grandchildren about voting: 'This is America. This is what we have to do.'

Derek Harper

CAPE MAY POINT — Few places beat Cape May Point when it comes to voting.

The tiny borough, less than a third of a mile in size, saw more than 90 percent of its residents vote in the last presidential race and has averaged more than 70 percent turnout over the past five years.

“They are very civic-minded people who care very much about their community, and I think that makes a huge difference,” said Connie Mahon, who serves as clerk of the 291-person town next to the Cape May lighthouse.

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“It is a very small town,” Mahon added. “We are able to walk to the polling place. There is only one.”

Election turnout tends to peak in presidential election years, when voters are motivated by the races and are most interested in the outcome. But South Jersey typically votes at a higher rate than the rest of the state, in part because of demographics and in part because of the legacy of closely contested races.

Eve Venafro, 80, said she voted for the first time in 1953, shortly after she turned 21, in Philadelphia. She moved to Cape May Point in 1979, voting in practically every primary and general election since.

“One grandson, he says, ‘What does it matter? It’s just one vote,’” she said, widening her eyes for effect as she walked back from the mailbox on a sunny afternoon.

Over the past five years, about 44 percent of voters have gone to the polls in New Jersey. In South Jersey, that figure is closer to 50 percent.

Turnout during the 2008 election reached 73 percent locally and statewide. While it fell off in other election years, it was higher in the region that includes Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Ocean counties.

During last year’s state legislative races, slightly more than 27 percent of voters cast ballots in New Jersey. Local turnout was almost 10 percentage points higher.

That was no surprise to Daniel J. Douglas, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Richard Stockton College.

Douglas said that voting turnout after last year’s legislative redistricting was higher in local races because they were more competitive. Candidates and parties both spent more money on advertisements and made more of an effort to get out the vote.

In fact, he wrote in 2011 that the Hughes Center has found that over the past 10 years, turnout in was 19 percent higher when state legislative races were competitive than when an overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican district made them safe for incumbent legislators.

Other factors that correlate with turnout are ethnicity, money and education, Douglas said. Generally speaking, people with more money and education tend to vote more often, Douglas said, and people of color tend to vote less often than white people.

Blacks have been historically discouraged from voting, Douglas said, and political organizations don’t always make the same effort to register them to vote.

Older people also vote more frequently than younger people.

This is illustrated by Cape May Point and Atlantic City, which at 32 percent turnout over the past five years, is the lowest in the region.

Cape May Point is almost 95 percent white, according to the 2010 census. The American Community Survey reported it had a per-capita income of $37,269 and an average age of slightly more than 66 years.

Atlantic City is about 38 percent black, 27 percent white, 16 percent Asian and 30 percent Hispanic, which can be of any race, according to the 2010 census. The American Community Survey reported it had a per-capita income of $20,069 and an average age of slightly more than 36 years.

It remains to be seen how turnout will be affected in this year’s presidential race. There has been limited campaigning in the region, Douglas said, because the race does not appear to be competitive in New Jersey.

The big question is what happens with school board candidates on the general-election ballot, he said. It will be the first time this has happened in more than a century.

At least one person in Cape May Point is all but certain to cast her ballot. Venafro said she already has emailed her grandchildren to get them to vote.

“This is America,” she said. “This is what we have to do.”

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