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Archive for Tuesday, October 8, 2002

Election integrity

October 8, 2002

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New Jersey Democrats have set an example other states shouldn't follow by bypassing the democratic election process.

The U.S. Supreme Court's refusal on Monday to review the constitutionality of replacing Sen. Robert Torricelli as the Democratic candidate in New Jersey opens the door to political maneuvering that could have a devastating impact on American democracy.

Monday's decision lets stand a ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court that upheld the right of the state Democratic Party to replace Torricelli in the race. Torricelli withdrew under pressure from the party as a result of various underhanded dealings that earned him a Senate reprimand. The problem is that the withdrawal occurred just 36 days before the election. New Jersey law outlines how ballot vacancies that occur 51 or more days before the election can be filled but makes no provision for filling such vacancies closer to the election. The state court, however, agreed that Democrats had the right to fill Torricelli's vacant spot with former Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

Almost no one is sorry to see Torricelli out of the race, but the process by which he was replaced raises some grave questions about the democratic process. Following the New Jersey example, any state party's central committee could override the normal primary process and replace any candidate it deemed unworthy.

It wouldn't be much of a stretch to imagine state party leaders withholding their support and driving a candidate who wasn't to their liking out of the race. They then could replace that candidate with someone who more closely toed their party line or simply someone they believed had a better chance to win. It is worth noting that Torricelli was lagging his opponent by about 13 percentage points at the time he withdrew.

Allowing such replacements undermines the nomination process in a number of ways. It leaves open the possibility that party leaders, for almost any reason, can run the candidate nominated through a state primary from the race and replace him or her with the candidate of their choice. It also allows them to do that very late in the game. In New Jersey, voting already had begun; absentee ballots had been mailed to military personnel and voters.

The U.S. Supreme Court likely declined to hear this case based on the assumption it is up to individual states to set the laws governing elections in that state. Hopefully, following this year's Torricelli fiasco, New Jersey voters and lawmakers will recognize a serious loophole that needs to be corrected in their election laws.

At the same time, all other states should take note of the New Jersey situation and take whatever measures are necessary to protect the integrity of their democratic nomination process and prevent maneuvers like the one just performed by New Jersey Democrats.

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