NJ Ballot Question: Legal weed wins

Election Day 2020, Morristown town hall. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.
Voters were also asked to grant a tax break to veterans and rewrite the rules on how legislative districts were decided

New Jersey voters approved this year’s closely watched ballot question seeking to legalize recreational marijuana for adults by a roughly 2 to 1 margin.

The results are in line with recent polls that suggested a likely victory for legalization advocates, although the law will not go into effect in New Jersey until Jan. 1, 2021. And the state must set up a regulatory system for how marijuana will be sold and taxed.

Meanwhile, another ballot question seeking to make more New Jersey veterans eligible to receive property-tax relief benefits also appeared to be on course to winning widespread approval from voters on Tuesday, based on the initial returns.

A third ballot question sought to postpone redrawing the state’s legislative districts due to concerns about the U.S. Census Bureau’s handling of the latest count amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. That also appeared likely to pass based on Tuesday’s initial results.

Click here for all ballot question results.

Click here for all election results.

Watch live NJ Spotlight News election coverage here.

Gov. Phil Murphy posted his praise for Tuesday’s election legalization victory on Twitter, saying, “We did it, New Jersey!” Murphy went on to call the outcome of the legalization referendum a “huge step forward for racial and social justice and our economy.”

Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, called the election results “historic” and predicted legalization has the potential to create “thousands of new jobs.”

But Rudder also pointed to the task of drafting regulations for the state’s recreational marijuana market that lawmakers in the State House are now facing.

“My hope is that this next step will mean removing potential restrictions that could keep the industry from reaching its full potential,” Rudder said.

“For now, we will enjoy this moment for all that it is worth,” he said.

Rev. Charles Boyer, director of the organization Salvation and Social Justice, said legalization “has the potential to be a powerful step forward in our fight against the drug war.” Or, he warned, “It could perpetuate a status quo that continues to oppress communities of color.”

“The path forward is now in our hands,” Boyer said.

How long before final tally?

The final vote tallies for all three ballot questions won’t be known until all mail-in and provisional ballots are tabulated by election officials in all 21 counties in the coming days.

Mail-in ballots that were postmarked by Nov. 3, but received through Nov. 10, will be counted first. Election officials will then turn their attention to counting provisional ballots that were cast at polling locations on Tuesday. The state’s election results will not be considered final until Nov. 20.

Marijuana question: results

Tax relief question: results

Redistricting question: results

Murphy was among those who vocally supported legalizing marijuana in New Jersey via a constitutional amendment,  making the issue part of his gubernatorial campaign platform in 2017.

Two sides of pot question

Murphy and other legalization advocates argued that regulated marijuana sales could generate much-needed tax revenue for a state budget that’s been hit hard by revenues losses triggered by the pandemic. They also made a social-justice case for legalization, citing studies that show Blacks and Latinos don’t use marijuana more than whites, but are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession and suffer long-term consequences as a result.

But opponents of legalization, including New Jersey police chiefs, raised concerns about impaired driving. Others argued the social-justice issues that supporters of legalization often point to won’t be solved by simply legalizing marijuana, and many instead backed the decriminalization of small amounts of pot.

Recent polls before the election, however, indicated a majority of New Jersey voters supported a policy change, by a roughly 2-to-1 margin.

Tax breaks for more vets?

On the ballot as “Public Question No. 2” this year was a proposed constitutional amendment seeking to expand state property-tax relief programs that have historically been limited to wartime military veterans and their surviving spouses.

The first part of the second ballot question asked whether a $250 property-tax deduction the state currently offers its wartime veterans and their surviving spouses should be expanded to include all honorably discharged veterans, even if they didn’t serve during wartime.

The second part of the ballot question asked whether a full property-tax exemption that the state currently offers to disabled wartime veterans and their surviving spouses should be provided to all disabled veterans who were honorably discharged from the military but did not serve during wartime.

Nonpartisan analysts from the state Office of Legislative Services estimated approximately 50,000 peacetime veterans would qualify for the $250 deduction if the ballot question was approved, and 4,000 disabled peacetime veterans would qualify for the full exemption.

Putting off redistricting

On the ballot as “Public Question No. 3” was a constitutional amendment seeking to delay state legislative redistricting for two years to allow current lawmakers to  run for reelection in 2021 in the same districts they currently represent.

The New Jersey Constitution requires the redrawing of legislative district lines after each decennial census to create 40 districts with roughly equal populations to follow the principle of one person, one vote. Every decade, this creates a problem for New Jersey because the state holds legislative elections in odd-numbered years.

Typically, the U.S. Census Bureau prioritizes the completion of the counts for New Jersey and Virginia because both hold state elections in the year following the count. In the past, the data has arrived late enough to force the state to push back the primary, usually held on the first Tuesday in June.

But this year, the pandemic delayed census takers from doing their work and the count — which was under a judicial mandate to continue through the end of October — is several months behind. Census officials have said they may not be able to provide New Jersey its data until mid-June of next year, after the primary normally would occur.

To prevent next year’s primary from occurring much later than usual, Democrats who control the Legislature backed the proposed constitutional amendment seeking to postpone the next redrawing of the state’s 40 legislative districts until as late as March 1, 2022.

However, some progressive activists campaigned against approval of the third ballot question, arguing a delay in the redrawing of districts would dilute for two more years the votes of minority groups whose numbers have grown over the past decade. Republicans, meanwhile, called the proposed amendment a power grab by the party in power to keep control over the Legislature for two more years.

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