Is it time for direct special elections?


An editorial in a northwest New Jersey newspaper caught my eye yesterday. It was in the Herald, a daily serving Sussex County. Though now owned by an out-of-state corporation, the Herald is an old newspaper, founded in 1829. To give you an idea of how old, its sister newspaper is called the Herald-Whig, of Quincy, Illinois.

Yesterday’s edition of the Herald ran an editorial titled “The People’s Choice” in which their editors argued that vacancies in elected offices should be filled “through the election process, not through a party-picked appointment to fill an unexpired term.” The editorial noted: “Such a process makes the appointees pseudo-incumbents and hence gives them a leg up on any other potential candidates. Because incumbents have a huge advantage over challengers, the ultimately elected official is essentially hand-picked by the political party, not the voters.”

I couldn’t agree more. However, and maybe the editors at the Herald were not around when it happened, the current system we have for filling vacancies was enshrined in the New Jersey Constitution by a direct vote by the people that occurred on November 8, 1988. On that day, Ballot Question Number Two passed by a vote of 1,503,003 to 649,185 - a lopsided mandate that an American president could only dream of.

The Question passed by a vote of 32,464 to 12,170 in Sussex County and 51,425 to 27,555 in my home county of Gloucester. In fact, Ballot Question Number Two passed by wide margins in all 21 counties. It emphatically was the “peoples’ choice.”

Ballot Question Number Two requires “that a vacancy in the Legislature be filled within 35 days by appointment by the members of the county committee of the political party of which the incumbent was the nominee from the municipalities or districts or units thereof which comprise the legislative district, and providing that the appointee shall serve until the election of a successor to fill the vacancy at the next general election. . .”

In an accompanying opinion column, two lawyer members of the Skylands Victory PAC confused matters so that the suggestion was made that the word “shall” is closer in meaning to the word “maybe” instead of “will”. A simple glance at the U.S. Constitution gives an idea of the kind of confusion this would lead to if it were the case:

“The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years. . .”

“No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”

“Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:-’I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.’”

“The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States. . .”

“He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States. . .”

Only two attorneys were quoted in the story and both came from a vendors’ PAC that has been criticized, along with all vendors’ PACs, by Governor Chris Christie. One likened the Governor’s use of his prerogative to “vultures circling” and the newspaper itself called a gubernatorial appointment “a form of patronage”.

You won’t get an argument from me, but the law is the law and, short of lobbying to actually change the law, there is little point in bemoaning it. Here is how the law reads:

2B:14-5. Filling vacancy in Surrogate’s office. If a Surrogate does not take office within 30 days after the end of the preceding term or a vacancy occurs in the office of Surrogate, the Governor, with advice and consent of the Senate, shall fill the vacancy from the political party of the person last elected to the office. The person appointed shall serve until election and qualification of a successor. Election of a successor for a five-year term shall occur at the next general election unless the vacancy occurs within 37 days before the election, in which case it shall occur at the second succeeding general election.

Note how it reads a bit differently from the law governing the appointment of Deputy Surrogates and Special Deputy Surrogates:

2B:14-10. Deputy Surrogate; Special Deputy Surrogate.

a. A Surrogate may appoint a Deputy Surrogate who shall serve at the pleasure of the Surrogate.

b. During the Surrogate’s absence or disability or in the event of a vacancy in the office of Surrogate, the Deputy Surrogate shall exercise all powers and duties of the Surrogate’s office.

c. A county may require that the Deputy Surrogate enter into a faithful performance bond and may set the amount and terms of the bond.

d. A Surrogate may appoint an employee to be Special Deputy Surrogate. The Special Deputy Surrogate shall serve at the pleasure of the Surrogate and, during absence or disability of the Surrogate and Deputy Surrogate or when there is both a vacancy in the Office of the Surrogate and no Deputy Surrogate, the Special Deputy Surrogate shall exercise all the powers and duties of the Surrogate.

In the past, the Herald and other newspapers from across the state have shown a willingness to lobby for or against legislation. One notable example was when a bill threatened to curtail the corporate welfare newspapers receive in the form of taxpayer-paid advertisements that local and county governments are required to purchase.

If there is going to be a serious effort to change the law to provide for direct elections to fill vacancies, I will support it 100 percent. But it is going to have to be a serious effort and require a bill that we can all get behind.

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