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Ahead of Primary, Independents in New Jersey Fight for Right to Vote

by Carl Wicklander, published

As New Jersey voters prepare to vote in the state's primary on Tuesday, the dynamics of the state's primary system comes into sharp focus.

Voter turnout was already very low in 2013 as the Garden State had two significant elections: a special election to fill the late Frank Lautenberg's U.S. Senate seat and a gubernatorial race.

Newark mayor Cory Booker defeated former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan in an October 16 race that included 25 percent of the registered electorate. Governor Chris Christie cruised to an easy re-election in November with a state record-low turnout of 40 percent. According to a Rutgers University report, this is part of a 20-year trend of declining turnout for gubernatorial elections and other races.

In a state where Democratic voter registration numbers surpass Republicans by over 700,000, unaffiliated voters surpassed Democrats by even more in 2013. Yet, in New Jersey's closed primary system, nearly half of the state's registered voters cannot participate in the primary unless they register with a party. Regardless, the fact that their tax money helps fund a system that cost $24 million in 2013 raises serious questions about the legitimacy of New Jersey primaries.

The state has evenly divided representation in the U.S. House of Representatives: 6 Republicans and 6 Democrats. However, the results from the 2012 elections suggest the system is skewed toward the major parties. That year, all Democrats won re-election by no less than 63 percent, with one receiving 87 percent. In contrast, all but one Republican won re-election that year with between 54 and 59 percent of the vote.

In 2014, there will be three open seats: one left vacant by resignation and two by retirements. Open seats are normally the most competitive, but the structure of New Jersey's closed primary system reveals that the fate of each open seat might be decided on Tuesday, 5 full months before the general election. In each open seat race, the incumbent party features more seasoned candidates with the out party running untested ones.

In the first district, the major Democratic competition is between two elected officials, Logan Township Mayor Frank Minor and state Senator Donald Norcross. On the Republican side, the race is between a TV sports reporter and former professional football player, a real estate agent, and a candidate who lost in a 2009 election for the New Jersey General Assembly.

In the third district, where Republican Jon Runyan is retiring, the Democratic race features a trial litigator, a New York law firm partner, and the 2013 lieutenant governor candidate of the little-known Glass-Steagall Party. On the Republican side, Steve Lonegan, the Republican U.S. Senate nominee in the 2013 special election, is running against former insurance executive Tom MacArthur, who received an endorsement from the outgoing representative.

Lonegan ran surprisingly well against Cory Booker in last year's special election and his performance increased his name recognition and national profile. With a reputation as a boisterous conservative in a Democratic state, a Lonegan victory in the primary could make the seat a toss-up. However, the Democrats still offered no current or past officeholder for the seat, a sign that the party never considered it competitive enough to sacrifice funds or a candidate.

This data may indicate that New Jersey has a voting system that is largely made to serve the purposes of the major parties to the exclusion of independents. Republicans have relatively safe seats, Democrats have even safer seats, and independents, who partially foot the bill of the primaries, have no say in the selection of the candidates for those safe seats.

A recent lawsuit filed in New Jersey is challenging the constitutionality of the New Jersey partisan primary, but the decision of the state's acting attorney general to move to dismiss the case shows how difficult any change can be.

The purpose of the legal complaint, filed by a coalition group called in March, is to defend the rights of all voters, including independents, to have an equal and meaningful voice in the election process. The lawsuit, which includes independent voters in New Jersey and voters who say they joined a party just so they could participate in the primaries, argues that the right to meaningful participation in elections is fundamental, that this right cannot be conditioned on joining any organization (including political parties), and that "public funds cannot be used to subsidize the private activities of political parties."

In the motion that came on May 9, the attorney general's office, on behalf of the New Jersey secretary of state, said:

"The plaintiffs do not have standing to bring this claim because they only allege a generally available grievance about government, and have not suffered a concrete and particularized injury."

The impact the exclusion of independent voters has was readily evident in the state's 2013 U.S. Senate primary election, in which only 9 percent of eligible voters participated. That came to less than half a million voters out of 5.5 million registered voters deciding the options for whom New Jerseyans would send as one of their state's two representatives in the U.S. Senate.

According to a 2013 IVN

report, the cost of the primary election amounted to $92 per actual participant.

Booker eventually won that special election, 55-44. A media-friendly candidate running for a full term in 2014, Booker appears set for a career in the U.S. Senate with all the additional advantages of incumbency after he won a primary contest in which he needed so few votes to prevail.

Even if ultimately dismissed, can still appeal. The plaintiffs have received an extension to July 3 in which to file a brief. The case brims with implications for the New Jersey independent voter who does not readily identify with the traditional two-party system. However, with a primary on Tuesday, it is unlikely that elections in 2014 will be affected and New Jersey independent voters will be locked out of a process they are compelled to fund with their tax money.

Photo Credit: AP

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