The Star-Ledger

In Assembly And Court, Democrats Fight Move To Hold Separate Elections

The Star-Ledger — Tuesday, June 18, 2013

By Matt Friedman / The Star-Ledger

New Jersey Democrats and their allies yesterday took action in the Legislature and the courts in their quest to undo Gov. Chris Christie's decision to have two elections three weeks apart this fall.

In the Senate state government committee and the Assembly's budget committee, Democrats advanced legislation to hold the scheduled November election for governor and the Legislature on Oct. 16, the same day Christie set the special election to fill the Senate seat of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

In court, Democrats and liberal groups are also trying to hold the two elections simultaneously, but on Nov. 5.

Regardless of when they want to have the elections, Democrats argue that having two statewide elections three weeks apart would cost $12 million, create a logistical nightmare, confuse voters and depress voter turnout in a way that would help Gov. Chris Christie's own political fortunes when he's up for re-election in November.

"It's not only a cynical move. It's self-serving, it's dishonest and it's irresponsible. We are wasting millions," Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono, a state senator who sits on the state government committee, said during yesterday's hearing.

The Senate committee voted 3-1 along party lines to approve legislation (S2858) to move the election to October, as well as a separate bill (S2857) that in the future would eliminate the governor's ability to call a special election.

"It's costing taxpayers too much money to have all these elections and it's putting too much burden on the staff as well as on voters," said state Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), who sponsors both of the bills. State Sen. Samuel Thompson (R-Middlesex), who opposed the measures, said that he did not think the committee should vote on them while the state Supreme Court decides whether to take up a case in which some Democrats and liberal groups are challenging Christie's authority to call the special election.

Nevertheless, Thompson said he thinks the governor made the right call "and I think it's appropriate to keep things the way they are." The Assembly committee voted 8-4 along party lines to move the November election to October. By the same margin, they also approved a bill (A4249) that would give voters who show up to the polls in October a chance to cast their ballot right there for the November gubernatorial election.

The Senate panel easily cleared the measure banning the governor from holding a special election. It would allow the governor to pick a replacement, but only from the same party as the senator that held the seat. An election to fill the seat would be held during the next scheduled general election. If the vacancy occurred fewer than 70 days before Election Day, the election would take place the following year.

Hours before the committees met, two liberal advocacy groups — New Jersey Citizen Action and New Jersey Communities United — said they had found a "smoking gun" in a century-old state law that could force Christie to schedule the general election in November.

The groups contend a 1915 law says Senate vacancies should be filled at the closest general election in order to "avoid the expenses of special elections for United States Senators and Congressmen."

The law, according to a lawyer for the groups, is the predecessor of two more recent statutes that conflict on how to fill vacancies.

"You have to look to legislative intent," said the lawyer, Steven Weissman. "The clearest expression in legislative intent here is the 1915 bill which said they wanted to avoid the expenses of special election. That's why they drafted this language."

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak once again said the governor followed the law and opted to give voters a choice by calling the special election.

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