Most Jersey voters will miss out on primary

January 4, 2008 6:13:17 PM PST
The biggest chunk of registered voters in New Jersey will be on the sidelines for the state's Feb. 5 presidential primaries.

Some 2.7 million of New Jersey's 4.8 million registered voters are not affiliated with any political party, and, like most states, New Jersey only allows registered members of political parties to vote in primaries. The only way unaffiliated voters can participate is if they choose to shed their unaffiliated status and join a political party on primary day.

Yet in November, when all registered voters can cast ballots, the independents will likely determine which presidential candidate gets New Jersey's 15 electoral votes.

Some 21 states have "open" primaries, meaning all registered voters can participate, but there is a trend toward making more primaries closed to party voters only, according to Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News.

He noted Hawaii, Mississippi and Virginia are among states that recently moved toward closed primaries.

Independents appear to have played a major role in Barack Obama's victory Tuesday night in the Iowa caucuses. One-fifth of those surveyed on the way into the Democratic contest in Iowa identified themselves as independents, and that group could be even more important in a primary state where registered independents can vote in either partisan contest.

New Jersey politicians, not surprisingly, have made no moves toward open primaries, said Brigid C. Harrison, a political science and law professor at Montclair State University. They want to ensure that nominees adhere closely to the party line, and that is best assured by limiting balloting to party members, she said.

"The political parties in New Jersey tend to be relatively strong, and it's in the parties' best interest to have party loyalists select the nominees," Harrison said.

The state does not keep records on how many independents have declared an affiliation on primary day.

This year, one voter who loses his independent status might be Thomas McClain of Neptune.

McClain, 50, says that although he leans Republican, he plans to vote in the Democratic primary for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"I'd like to see what a woman can do in charge of this country, said McClain, a supermarket maintenance worker. "She's got the experience, too, because of her husband," referring to former President Bill Clinton.

Historically, New Jersey has a poor turnout, from voters of either party, in presidential primaries.

For example, the last presidential primary, in 2004, which also included House candidates, attracted just 9 percent of all registered voters. In 2000, which had the U.S. senate races in addition to president and House, 17 percent cast ballots.

Elections officials are hoping for a better turnout in 2008, having moved the state's primary from June to February to give state voters a greater say in who gets the presidential nomination.

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