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Low Turnout and Few Challenges in NJ Primary Vote

Monday, June 06, 2011

This election cycle, all of New Jersey's 80 Assembly and 40 Senate seats are at stake. And though the primary election that decides who gets to run for these seats is Tuesday, just 15 percent of the races are contested.

Policy analyst Ingrid Reed, recently retired from the Eagleton Institute, says despite the importance of the election, turnout is expected to be low because there are no statewide races on the ballot.

"If people win a primary race in New Jersey," Reed says, "they probably won't have trouble getting elected to the Assembly or the Senate because most of our districts are really not competitive in the general election."

Reed says a handful of veteran incumbents are facing spirited primary challenges, including long time Union County Democratic State Senator Ray Lesniak and Morris County State senator Tony Bucco.

Reed says Lesniak's Democratic intra-party fued is the most interesting because across the country, the Republican Party and its Tea Party faction that have captured media attention.

"This is unusual because Lesniak's well-organized opponents are saying he's not Democratic enough," says Reed.

As Star Ledger columnist Bob Braun laid out Sunday, "Democrats for Change" are really fuming over Lesniak's embrace of vouchers to subsidize kids from under-achieving public school districts to attend standout private schools.

With the support of NJEA, the state's teacher unions, the faction is running Jerome Dunn, an assistant school superitendent from Elizabeth. It was the core of this same insurgent Democratic faction that in 2009 actually broke with state Democrats crossing over to endorse Christie for Governor.

Tuesday's primary marks the first time voters will be selecting candidates based on the new state district map that tries to incorporate the trends picked up by the 2010 Census. The Census documented a substantial increase in the Hispanic population and a shift of the state's population concentration from north to the south.

Still, the new map and district boundaries left most incumbents feeling pretty invincible. Of the 40 senate incumbents, 36 are running for re-election and only five of those facing a primary challenge.

In the Assembly, 64 out of 80 incumbents are running for reelection, although they'll have to introduce themselves to thousands of new voters who were added into the district.

New Jersey does not have an open primary.

"You can declare for a party when you show up at the polls" if you have not voted in a primary before says Reed. "But if you voted in the Republican or Democratic primary in the past and have not changed your registration, you can only vote for someone in the party where you voted before."

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