Wednesday, June 13, 2007

State's GOP should forgo winner-take-all primary

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 06/13/07

For the first time in decades, between now and Feb. 5, New Jersey Republicans will have a unique opportunity to actively participate in the selection of the Republican nominee for president in 2008. Or will we?

This past week, both former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., announced they would not be participating in the August straw poll in Iowa, which since 1979 has been a true test of a presidential campaign's organizational and grass-roots strength. This is a sad trend: Compete where you can win, ignore where you expect to lose.

Leading up to public forums like the Iowa Straw Poll, candidates cannot hide behind sound-bites developed by consultants, tested by pollsters and then disseminated through slick television ads and glossy direct mail. They have to engage with real voters. Without such forums, national candidates could easily spend the entire campaign season shielded by advisers and spokesmen.

In this increasingly impersonal political environment, it is essential that we create incentives for those seeking public office to get out from behind the camera lens and face the voters in person.

That's why I have always been an advocate of reform of the Electoral College by eliminating New Jersey's winner-take-all system. Since 2000, I have sponsored legislation to split New Jersey's Electoral College votes by congressional district in presidential elections. That plan, which has been adopted in other states, would allocate New Jersey's 15 electoral votes according to the popular vote in each of the 13 congressional districts, with two at-large votes allocated to the statewide winner, rather than allowing the candidate with bare plurality to carry all 15.
We are all familiar with the winner-take-all system that produced the post-2000 election fallout in Florida and the contentious fight in Bush vs. Gore. But few people realize we can fix our own system locally. The Constitution reserves to states the power to determine how to select electors. By ensuring that no candidate can take all 15 electoral votes for granted, we will enhance New Jersey's voice and prevent candidates from simply skipping over our state.

If the results are close on Election Day, it is only fair that each candidate get a piece of New Jersey's electoral pie. This, of course, would encourage more presidential candidates to visit New Jersey for functions other than fundraisers.
For the same reasons, I supported legislation enacted last year to move New Jersey's presidential primary four months early — to February 2008 —on the view that an early voice in presidential primaries is ordinarily a more influential voice. But that reform will, in effect, be nullified by a new proposal being pushed before the New Jersey Republican State Committee to make New Jersey's Republican primary election a winner-take-all process.

The Giuliani campaign appears to support this proposal. Last month, the campaign told the National Journal that holding a winner-take-all primary in New Jersey "will free up (Giuliani) to spend time and resources elsewhere that he would have had to devote to winning each of the Garden State's 13 congressional districts." The Giuliani campaign understands that its candidate has a natural early advantage because New Jersey is, in a sense, the candidate's second home state.

But this statement highlights the precise problem with a winner-take-all process: It will effectively remove New Jersey from the process of selecting the Republican nominee for president in 2008.

If the Republican State Committee adopts a winner-take-all process when it votes on the primary rules Thursday night, the Legislature's decision to move the date of our presidential primary to February 2008 will have been for naught. The date change is expected to cost New Jersey taxpayers millions of dollars to hold two separate primary elections in 2008. That's a steep price to pay for a meaningless primary that will seal an early, effortless victory for one candidate. That kind of stacked-deck primary will guarantee that New Jersey voters have little or no opportunity to participate in electing the next president.

Like Iowa Straw Poll-goers shunned by Giuliani and McCain, New Jersey Republicans will be left out in the cold if the Republican State Committee chooses to hold a winner-take-all primary.

Joseph M. Kyrillos Jr. is a Republican state senator from the 13th Legislative District, which includes Monmouth and Middlesex counties. He is a former chairman of the New Jersey Republican State Committee and is New Jersey chairman of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

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