Apathy in New Jersey to impact nation, panelists say

New Jersey may be leading the nation in terms of politics and policy yet may be dangerously close to setting the tone as well for an apathetic political climate, several panelists agreed during an election eve discussion, "As Goes New Jersey, So Goes the Nation? A Conversation on the U.S. Senate Race in New Jersey," held Monday at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs .

"Apathy raises issues about the well being of our democracy," said panelist Thomas Byrne Jr., a 1976 Princeton graduate and former chair of the New Jersey State Democratic Party. He insisted that New Jersey suffers from a "triumph of apathy" as exemplified by tendencies including: candidates' oversimplification of issues, voters' lack of campaign volunteerism and an emphasis on raising money for certain but not all campaigns. He said this apathy is reversing the vision of our nation's founding fathers.

Panelist Ingrid Reed, director of the New Jersey Project for the Eagleton Institute of Politics, countered that New Jersey does not act as though it wants its people to be involved in elections. She pointed to many election faults in the state that she said the rest of the nation should avoid including: the inability to register on election day; computerized voting systems similar to those of Florida; delays in absentee ballots (due to the change in the Democrats' Senate candidates); the inability of voters to cast ballots at their convenience; and the lack of campaign information on the Internet.

The irony of the apathy, experts noted, is that the Senate race to be decided today, between Republican Douglas Forrester and Democrat Frank Lautenberg (Robert Torricelli's replacement), will be close. Reed predicted the election will be a close call due to the increase of people voting in local elections in Bergen and Essex counties. "Every race will be very close, and every vote will count," she said.

"The Senate race in New Jersey is especially interesting because partisan control of the Senate is about as close as it can get," noted Douglas Arnold, panel moderator and the William Church Osborn Professor of Public Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School.

Panelist Iver Peterson, a political reporter for The New York Times, agreed that the balance of the Senate is at stake and that the Forrester-Lautenberg matchup will prove closer than projections. He added that there are many close Senate races across the nation, including 34 Senate seats at stake with only half of those seats considered safe. Races in Colorado, Missouri, New Hampshire, Arkansas and North Carolina are closer than the New Jersey race, he said.

Other factors also influence race outcomes, noted panelist Richard Zimmer, a former congressman in the 12th District in New Jersey. He expressed concern over the state having a "black hole" when it comes to media coverage and said this benefits incumbents. "The media pays no attention to New Jersey, so the only coverage candidates get is what they pay for. That is why incumbents always win."

Election polls in New Jersey are open today between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Contact: Lauren Robinson-Brown (609) 258-3601