With the spotlight on New York to finally legalize in the 2021 legislative session, New Jersey has added new urgency to the issue – seeing their own efforts for legalization win in a landslide referendum victory. That victory could hold some key insights into the changed electoral and political realities here in New York.
With the big win on Election Day for legalization in New Jersey, the conversation around efforts in New York to establish an adult-use marketplace has heated up. New York lawmakers will attempt to do what New Jersey's legislature could not - implement legalization through the legislative process and not at the ballot box.
While the reality of New Jersey collecting tax revenue from New Yorkers will certainly add a new level of urgency to the issue, it doesn't change the fact that Senate Democrats have not had the votes to pass a legalization bill.
We know that public opinion on marijuana has been shifting but electoral results from New Jersey could give us our best insights into how voters in the Empire State really feel and convince key lawmakers to throw their support behind legalization.
New Jersey's Electoral Insights
The measure to legalize, Question 1, passed with 67.1% of the vote and succeeded in every county by at a minimum 20 point margin.
Republican Support Growing
Legalization overperformed President Biden in every one of New Jersey's northern counties. The most dramatic overperformance was in Sussex County where voters preferred Trump 58.5% to 39% but voted in favor of legalization by 66.4% to 33.6%. This tells us that even though legalization has drifted far from being a partisan issue, it could result in New York republicans breaking ranks to support the issue even though we haven't seen that in the Senate or Assembly the past two years. The map has expanded in recent years for democrats in Upstate districts that have a mix of rural and suburban areas, making some republican senators vulnerable to a flip and more likely to cross the aisle on popular issues.
This kind of pressure from democrats in traditional republican strongholds is evidenced by Michelle Hinchey's victory in Senate District 46, a formerly red district comprised of both rural towns and NYC exurbs. In fact, this district is in many ways similar to Sussex County, where the vast majority of residents are white, a sizable amount of the electorate are not affiliated with a party, and agriculture is a key economic driver. Republican lawmakers in these areas could look to support legalization in an effort to win over moderate voters and provide new economic opportunities to their districts.
Even in Ocean County, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 2:1 and Trump won with 63.5% of the vote, legalization prevailed by over 20 percentage points. This trend of adult-use cannabis becoming less of a partisan issue is mirrored nationwide, as we discussed last week. Despite this trend, however, Republican lawmakers continue to end up on the opposite of their constituents. Leading up to the election, both the New Jersey Republican State Committee and the Republican County Chairmen's Association came out in opposition to the ballot initiative.
Suburban Voters Not Swayed By Propaganda
Recognizing that the path to legalization runs through New York's suburbs, opposition groups such as Smart Approaches to Marijuana have pushed a narrative that adolescent use will increase and roadways will become filled with inebriated drivers. In fact, there is little evidence to support these claims - just this week the CDC released a report that shows admissions for teens seeking treatment for the overuse of marijuana has declined in states that have legalized. Nevertheless, these arguments seemed to permeate the suburban electorate.
Siena College Polls from January 2019 and January 2020 show that suburban support for marijuana legalization fell from 51% to 44% from 2019 to 2020, even though statewide support rose and Democratic support increased from 65% to 69%. In February 2020, Smart Approaches to Marijuana commissioned an Emerson College Polling in suburban senate districts which showed that less than one-third of voters supported legalization. It seemed that a mix of these poll results, along with a strong public campaign enlisting local law enforcement groups and the Parent Teachers Association, were enough to derail legalization efforts.
In 2019 state lawmakers came close to reaching a deal on the issue but negotiations stalled at the last hour due to lack of support in the Senate and the inability to strike a deal with Governor Cuomo on key points such as tax revenue allocation. It was reported that thirty Democratic Senators were in support, just two votes shy of the required minimum, and nine Senators were in opposition. Of these, two were from Westchester, five from Long Island, and two were from New York City’s suburban districts. According to The Gothamist, it is impossible to know exactly what happened in Albany, as no vote took place, and the amendments were pulled in the middle of the night. However, we do know that talks broke down involving the “big ugly”, an omnibus bill passed at the end of the session consisting of controversial legislation that didn’t make it to a vote, signaling that Senate leaders did not feel like they had a majority on legalization.
Why didn't they have the votes? New York City suburbs.
Over the summer, we looked at the demographics, electoral realities, and the effects disinformation campaigns had on dissuading suburban Democratic Senators from supporting legalization. A key part of this was the Long Island Six, a voting block of six moderates democrats. In fact, it was in these districts that the polls paid for by Smart Approaches to Marijuana found the support of legalization to be low and where the organization spent much of their time on a concerted public relations campaign. All of the Long Island Six members narrowly won their seats back this cycle except for Senator Monica Martinez in SD-3. With every legislative seat up every two years, the next election is always looming and votes are highly calculated in how they will affect the candidate's chances. It was certainly the calculus in 2019 that a vote to legalize adult-use cannabis would eventually turn voters off and be used against during the campaign. However, the results next door in similar suburbs challenges that assumption.
Lessons from Bergen County
Bergen County is the most populous county in the state of New Jersey. It serves as an enclave for middle and upper-class workers who commute to New York City across the George Washington Bridge. Bergen County is, for all intents and purposes, a New York suburb. Its identity is so intertwined with the Empire State that the New York Giants and Jets home stadium is there. It's also strikingly similar electorally and demographically to Nassau County where four of the most important holdouts on legalization are from (Kaplan, Brooks, Goughran, and Kaminsky).
In both counties, around 71% of the population is white. In Nassau County, 39.6% of the electorate are registered Democrats compared to 38.1% in Bergen. Joe Biden won Bergen County 57.5% to 41.1% and in Nassau, the former Vice President is winning 54% to 44.7% with a significant amount of absentee ballots left to count which will most certainly raise his lead.
The voters of Bergen County chose yes on Question 1, the legalization of adult-use cannabis, by a margin of 33 percentage points - 66.5% to 33.5%. Legalization outperformed Biden by 11 points.
While there are certainly major differences between the residents of Nassau and Bergen Counties, I would say that when it comes to elections, they are much more alike than they are different. Even if there are some factors that would lead to a difference between the voters in those two counties on the issue of legalization, it's hard to imagine those factors resulting in a 16 point swing.
The results in New Jersey are hard to ignore if you are a cannabis consumer in New York, especially as dispensaries begin to open. But these results may be even harder to ignore for Democratic and Republican Senators alike when the issue of legalization is inevitably brought up by the media, constituents, and party leadership. It's safe to say that no legislator in New York State should be scared of losing their job for simply supporting the end to prohibition.
Follow Kaelan on Twitter: @KaelanCastetter