(Licensed through Wikimedia Creative Commons. Photo Courtesy of Bob Jagendorf.)
Chris Christie is no friend of democracy.
The scheme that the New Jersey governor implemented with regard to Wednesday’s New Jersey special election to fill the US Senate seat that went vacant with the death of veteran US Senator Frank Lautenberg was designed to achieve the a very low level of voter turnout.
And to provide Christie, a potential 2016 Republican presidential contender, with a very high level of political cover.
It worked for Christie.
But it certainly did not work for New Jersey, or for the premise that broad voter participation ought to underpin representative government.
Here is how Christie gamed the political process:
1. He scheduled the Senate election for October 16, twenty days before New Jersey’s regularly scheduled statewide and local elections. That cost the taxpayers millions of dollars in additional expenses and created unnecessary confusion. Why? Christie did not want to have a high-profile Senate contest on the ballot the same day that he would be seeking re-election. He feared that parallel scheduling would have brought more Democrats to the polls—to vote for the expected Democratic Senate nominee, Newark Mayor Cory Booker—and that those Democrats might have then voted for his challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono.
2. He scheduled the election for a Wednesday rather than a Tuesday. It’s bad enough that the United States holds elections on work days, rather than weekends. But it is even worse when elections are scheduled on different work days than is normally the case.
3. When New Jersey legislators sought to address the confusion, with a plan to schedule parallel elections, Christie refused to work with them, vetoed their plan and accused good-government advocates of trying to create “unnecessary voter confusion.”
That was an absurd claim.
Christie created the confusion. Indeed, he created so much confusion that the Republican National Committee—Christie’s own party machine—distributed an election-week message urging voters to go to the polls on the wrong day: Tuesday, October 15, rather than Wednesday, October 16.
When the votes were counted Wednesday night, Booker won the seat with relative ease; his margin was a comfortable 55-45 over Republican Steve Lonegan.
Lonegan was a Tea Party favorite and, at a moment of intense division in New Jersey and nationally, he took stances in stark contrast to those of Booker.
The choice was clear.
Yet, as Politico noted, “turnout was low: About 1.2 million votes had been cast by 10:30 p.m., in a state of almost 5.5 million registered voters.”
That means that Booker will go to the US Senate with the voting-booth endorsement of only a small fraction of the New Jersey electorate.
Booker would, undoubtedly, have won in a higher-turnout election—presumably by an even wider margin.
What Christie’s manipulation of the process guaranteed was that Booker would go to the Senate with the slimmest possible mandate. And the governor engaged in that manipulation with the self-serving purpose of assuring that Booker voters would not threaten Christie’s November re-election run.
That’s an atrocious abuse of the political process.
No one should forget what Chris Christie did to empower himself and to disempower everyone else.
New Jersey voters should remember in November—it won’t be hard, the general election is less than three weeks off.
And voters beyond New Jersey, who might encounter Christie as a 2016 presidential candidate, should also remember. A politician who is so willing to disregard democracy in order to advance his own ambition deserves to be greeted with skepticism by Republicans and Democrats.
John Nichols discusses Christie's stance on marriage equality.