Nothing sounds quite so

October 4, 2002 12:36 a.m.

Nothing sounds quite so tinny as self-righteous indignation. Until you come to Republican self-righteous indignation.

TPM continues to be inundated by a flurry of Republicans’ emails howling about the outrage of New Jersey Supreme
Court decision allowing a change in the election ballots. The normally sensible
Senator Bill Frist — who walked the Republicans’ appeal over to the Supreme
Court today — was ridiculous enough to charge that Democrats were trying
to “steal an election they could not otherwise win.”

(Where these gun-slingers for the rule of law were when Mitt Romney
got a pass, and rightly so, on his Massachusetts residency requirement I
just don’t know.)

Republicans have developed a lot of know-how in the last couple
years at stealing elections. But I must confess to a certain confusion about
how one steals an election by fielding a candidate. The idea seems to be
that for Doug Forrester, Frank Lautenberg is an unfairly strong candidate. And that Forrester is somehow damaged by Lautenberg’s electability.

Giving it some thought, and considering the Supreme Court’s decisions in Bush v. Gore, it even seems possible that this might be the basis of an equal protection claim for Forrester. Forrester
entered the race with the reasonable expectation that he would only face
a candidate either equally lame or more lame than him, but not less
lame. It’s almost an implied contract he has with the state’s electorate,
right? Putting a new candidate on the ballot now violates this insufferable
chump’s right to coast into office without facing an actual opponent. But
I digress …

I looked at the NJ Supreme Court ruling
and it struck me as a liberal, though not unreasonable, construction of the
statute. The court “determined that N.J.S.A. 19:13-20 [the statute in question]
does not preclude the possibility of a vacancy occurring within fifty-one
days of the general election …”

Now I’m not a lawyer (and lawyers — though several are very dear
to my heart — rule the world and elections and so forth) so there’s really
no point in my giving you my opinion on whether the decision passes muster.
But I’d say I feel pretty comfortable with the proposition stated here a
couple days back, that election laws should be construed expansively in the
interest of holding actual elections — not just notional elections in which it’s the Republican against the Green or Socialist candidate.

Most of the substantive arguments I’ve heard to the contrary strike
me as pretty weak. One commentator says the whole switch is wrong because
it deprives Jersey voters of the right to throw Torricelli out of office.
But of course that’s just a dumb throwaway comment which means nothing.

The other argument one hears is that this decision will set off
a wave of candidates taking electoral hemlock days or weeks prior to an election
they are destined to lose. Can anyone who makes this argument have ever
spent any time around elected politicians? Not a chance. Especially these
days with weak parties there’s really no institutional force capable of knocking
a candidate out of a race. And people who run for office just don’t have
egos that work that way. To put it mildly.

The real public good question, it seems to me, is just what harm anyone has suffered through this decision. I can’t see one, save Doug Forrester being forced to run against an actual candidate. Unfortunately, the appeal the Forrester
campaign has made to the United States Supreme Court turns on precisely the
same principle which the Court’s 5-4 majority created out of whole cloth
in order to find a way to turn the 2000 presidential election to George W.
Bush. So consistency would dictate their intervention in this case too. Here consistency may be the handmaiden of travesty.

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