Senate votes to move up primary
Lawmakers set February date to expand state's role in presidential race

By Robert Schwaneberg
Published June 24th 2005 in Star Ledger
Lawmakers yesterday voted to move New Jersey's last-in-the-nation June presidential primary to early February, an action that would put the Garden State in the midst of the early scramble by candidates for the nation's highest office.

Without debate, the Senate passed the bill 36-1. It now goes to acting Gov. Richard Codey, who co-sponsored the bill in his dual role as Senate president.

"For too long our state has been relegated to the sidelines of presidential primary elections. That ends today," Codey said. "No longer will candidates just court our wallets, now they will court our votes."

The idea of moving up the presidential primary has been discussed for at least a decade but always ran into objections that it was too costly or could have unpredictable effects on local races.

Ingrid Reed, director of the New Jersey Project at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, said New Jerseyans and their political leaders finally got tired of being irrelevant to presidential primaries.

"It was pretty dramatic that New Jersey was out of the picture," Reed said.

Gerald Pomper, a professor at Eagleton and the author of seven books on presidential politics, said it has been at least two decades since the Garden State mattered in a presidential primary.

By the time New Jerseyans went to the polls in June 2004, John Kerry and President Bush had both locked up their respective Democratic and Republican nominations, and Kerry never once visited New Jersey during the ensuing general election campaign.

That offended Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), who said Kerry, after raising millions of dollars in New Jersey, could have paid a visit "just as a matter of respect." Vitale, a sponsor of the bill moving up the presidential primary, said it will force candidates to pay attention to New Jersey voters and their concerns.

"It's going to have a dramatic impact on presidential politics," Vitale said. "New Jersey's always been at the end of the food chain."

 Moving up the presidential primary to the last Tuesday in February would allow New Jerseyans to cast their ballots ahead of the March "Super Tuesday," when eight states including New York, California and Ohio hold their primaries.

"It puts New Jersey out in front," Vitale said. "It requires candidates to come here and talk about New Jersey."

Sen. John Adler (D-Camden), another sponsor, said the earlier primary "will force candidates of both parties to tailor their messages to New Jersey and the Northeast."
"The winning candidate will have to be more for New Jersey than we've seen from presidential candidates for a number of years," Adler said.

That may be hoping for too much, according to Joseph Marbach, chairman of the political science department at Seton Hall University.

"I don't know if there's going to be any real benefit to the state other than some media attention," Marbach said.

Pomper sees "a marginal gain" for New Jersey. "It's not like New Jersey is going to stick out like New Hampshire," he said. "We're just joining the parade at the end, rather than leading it."

It will cost the state and counties an estimated $10.3 million to hold a primary in June 2008 -- and that is just to elect delegates pledged to a presidential candidate.

Under the bill, the state would still have the expense of holding a regular primary that June for Congressional and local offices. Vitale said it would not have been practical to move up those primaries because it would have meant "nonstop campaigning."

Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) cast the lone vote against moving the primary.

It is part of a larger package of bills intended to make voting easier and more secure. Bills allowing citizens to register to vote up to 21 days before the election, rather than 29, and requiring a Voter's Bill of Rights to be posted at polling places also won final legislative approval yesterday.