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OP-ED: Promote Voter Turnout, Not Discourage It

New Jersey should get its act together, says Essex County Clerk Christopher J. Durkin.

Essex County Clerk Christopher J. Durkin.
Essex County Clerk Christopher J. Durkin.

The following op-ed is written by Essex County Clerk, Christopher J. Durkin.

Many New Jersey lawmakers have fought to make it easier to vote. And there has been considerable progress in terms of voter access and information.

Voter registration has been made easier, with forms available online that can be printed and mailed with pre-paid postage. The public can even register to vote or change their voting address at the Division of Motor Vehicles.

State law has mandated that County Clerks must have Vote by Mail Ballots available to the public 45 days prior to Election Day. And please do not be confused by the name Vote by Mail … because the public can walk into their County Clerk’s Office and apply for a ballot in person and then hand their ballot to the Board of Elections to be counted.

Prior to 2009, voters needed an excuse to Vote by Mail (i.e. sick or incapacitated, military, the nature and hours of work, schooling) and they had to check the box next to the excuse that applied to them. Today, Vote by Mail Ballots are accessible to all registered voters and an excuse is not needed.                          

The Unqualified Qualification of Steve Lonegan

Governor Chris Christie cleverly arranged for two Special Elections to fill Senator Lautenberg’s unexpired term rather than include the election for Senate on the November 5th general election ballot. The first Special Election, a mid-August Primary, resulted in the second lowest voter turnout for a Primary in New Jersey’s electoral history, a mere 9%. 

New Jersey is a closed Primary state. This means that only registered Republicans and registered Democrats are able to be candidates for office on the Primary ballot. In addition, the only voters who are eligible to participate in their respective Primary Elections are registered Republican voters and registered Democratic voters.

Of the more than 5.4 million New Jersey voters, 1.7 million are registered Democrats and 1.04 million are registered Republicans. Nearly half of New Jersey’s registered voters (2.6 million) are Unaffiliated (voters who are registered without a political party affiliation). 

Voters who are registered as Unaffiliated can choose to vote in a Primary Election, but they have to choose which “party” primary they would like to vote in and then immediately become a member of that political party.

The Republican and Democratic political parties have a major advantage in our political process, but there is a state statute (N.J.S.A. 19:12-1) that certifies and qualifies political parties for “superior” ballot position on the General Election ballot. In order to qualify for an opportunity to appear in a superior ballot position — at the top two ballot positions (A and B) — both the Republican and Democratic Party candidates at the Primary Election must receive at least 10% (259,773) of the total number of votes cast at the last General Election where members of the General Assembly were candidates for office (In the November 8, 2011, General Election, 2,597,725 votes were cast).

New Jersey’s Secretary of State erroneously certified that the Republican candidates Steve Lonegan and Elieta Eck received the required minimum votes (greater than 10% minimum of 259,773 votes) when in reality they only received a total of 130,340 votes.

The four Democratic Special Primary candidates qualified comfortably with a total of 367,778 votes. 

Eugene Martin LaVergne, who was an Independent candidate for U.S. Senate at the Special General Election held on Wednesday, October 16th, filed a challenge to the decision of the Secretary of State, but it was too late, being that ballots for the October 16th Election had already been printed.

Mr. LaVergne’s contention was that Mr. Lonegan and the Republican Party did not qualify for a “superior” ballot position based on state law. His argument followed that Cory Booker should have been awarded the top ballot position (Line A) in all 21 counties and, due to the fact that Mr. Lonegan’s political party did not qualify for a chance at the top two ballot positions (Lines A or B), he should have been placed in a random draw for ballot position with the other six Independent candidates for U.S. Senate.

The U.S. Senate Special General Election held on Wednesday October 16th achieved the distinction of being New Jersey’s lowest ever voter turnout (24%) for a General Election.

Need for Change 

There are 20 states that have some form of “open” primary. South Carolina is among the most open, where all registered voters, no matter their party affiliation, can vote in whatever primary they choose. The argument against this process is that you create the opportunity for registered Democrats to vote in the Republican Primary and vice versa just to cause “mischief” and vote for whom they consider to be the “inferior” candidate.

California’s open primary even allows Independent candidates to run on the Primary ballot alongside Republican and Democratic candidates. The top two vote-getters then face off in the General Election, even if it’s a scenario of Republican vs. Republican or Democrat vs. Democrat.

New Hampshire’s semi-open primary strikes the right compromise. The people of New Hampshire have great pride in being the first Primary Election of the Presidential campaign. This pride led to the opening up of their Primary system to allow Unaffiliated voters to voice an opinion in the nominating process while not having to become a member of a political party, while registered Republicans and registered Democrats can only vote in their respective primaries. This system not only preserves the political party primary, but increases voter interest and turnout.

We should cast our vote, not as our debt to society, but for our love of America.

Christopher J. Durkin, Essex County Clerk

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