New date of primary a worry to reformers
Early presidential voting may worsen the problem

Published July 4th 2005 in Newark Star Ledger
It has been 21 years since New Jersey made a difference in picking a presidential candidate.

Now, political leaders say the way to fix that is to move New Jersey's last-in-the-nation primary election from June to February, and acting Gov. Richard Codey is poised to sign a bill doing just that. The bill has been approved by both the Assembly and the state Senate.

But to would-be election reformers, New Jersey's solution is the nation's problem. By joining the "rush to the front," they say New Jersey is exacerbating a long trend of states moving their presidential primaries earlier and earlier.               
The resulting bunch-up of winter primaries makes the presidential campaign unreasonably long, deprives voters of a chance to really get to know the candidates before voting and makes big money for television advertising even more important, critics contend.

And it leaves voters in states that go to the polls last feeling left out -- which is why Codey called for an earlier presidential primary.

"New Jersey's effort may work out for New Jersey, but it's only further indication of why the national parties need to act to develop a primary process that is good for all the states," said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a nonpartisan election reform advocacy group based in Tacoma Park, Md.

Tami Buhr, research coordinator at the Joan Shorenstein Center on The Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, said it is hard to blame the states.

"You can't single out Iowa or New Hampshire or New Jersey," Buhr said. "They're all doing what makes sense from their own individual viewpoint, but it doesn't make sense for the country as a whole."

Supporters of a February presidential primary for New Jersey hope it will bring economic benefits by forcing the candidates to heed the state's concerns and make good on their promises once they get to the White House.

But Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia said at least 15 other states also are thinking of moving their primaries earlier to increase their clout.

"Even though New Jersey thinks it is moving to the front, it may only be moving to the middle of the pile," Sabato said. "I doubt there is going to be that much economic benefit."

In some ways, the current situation is the result of reform gone awry.

In 1968, when presidential candidates were still picked at party conventions, only 14 states held primaries and 13 were in April or later. New Jersey was one of four states that held June primaries.                

Primaries were intended to transfer the power to pick the candidates from party bosses to the people but soon spawned new problems. By 1996, there were primaries in 41 states, and 29 of those were before April.

A poll taken in 2000 by The Vanishing Voter project at Harvard's Shorenstein Center found the public so disillusioned with the system that, by a margin of 43 to 40 percent, it preferred a return "to the old smoke-filled rooms."

Some states have traded expensive primaries for party caucuses.

"Ten states canceled their presidential primaries in 2004 because of dwindling voter interest and state budget cuts," said Meredith Imwalle, director of communications for the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Then there is California, which helped accelerate the trend towards earlier primaries when it moved its balloting from June to March a decade ago. For 2008, it is moving its primary back to June.

The Fresno Bee called California's experiment with a winter primary an "utter failure." The paper said it never gave the Golden State real clout in picking presidential nominees and made the campaign season too long for candidates for other offices.

The bill awaiting Codey's signature moves up the primary only for presidential candidates. Nominees for congressional and local offices would still be elected in June.

But holding a second primary is expensive. The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services puts the cost at $10.3 million for 2008, and John M. Carbone, an election-law expert and counsel to the County Clerks Association, said it "could run as high as $18 million." He said clerks can handle the logistics and wholeheartedly support the idea -- so long as the state pays.

"It's a very laudable goal and it puts New Jersey where it should be -- in the national spotlight," Carbone said.

The last time New Jersey mattered in a presidential primary was in 1984, when the race between Walter Mondale and Gary Hart for the Democratic nomination went down to the wire in June. Hart won narrowly in California while Mondale scored a decisive victory in New Jersey, giving him just enough delegates to claim the nomination.                

Reform backers say there are fairer ways of structuring primaries.

One would start primary balloting in the smallest states and end with the largest, including New Jersey, in June. Those final votes would matter because there would be so many of them, while the early voting in the smaller states would test the candidates' views and mettle. Under a variation of that plan, New Jerseyans might vote early in one election and later in another.

The National Association of Secretaries of States has proposed four huge regional primaries, with a different region voting first in each election. But that plan would first have to be accepted by both political parties and all 50 states -- an unlikely scenario, Sabato said.

"There are 50 independent pieces of the puzzle and they're never going to coordinate," Sabato said. "They're always going to be looking for an edge, just like New Jersey's doing right now."

Robert Schwaneberg covers legal issues and state government. He may be reached at (609) 989-0324 or [email protected]
Sierra Club National Popular Vote Resolution
WHEREAS, the mission of the Sierra Club is to explore, enjoy and protect the planet through grassroots participation in politics and government; and

WHEREAS,  presidential candidates focus their efforts and resources only in battleground states.

WHEREAS, two-thirds of the states receive little to no attention in a competitive presidential election.

THERFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the Sierra Club supports National Popular Vote state legislation that will elect the President of the United States by popular vote.

BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, that the Sierra Club supports election of the President of the United States by direct popular vote.