N.J. considers oversight shift for elections

If Corzine OKs the bill, the secretary of state will manage voting, not the attorney general.

TRENTON - It's dumbfounding, says Assemblyman Bill Baroni (R., Mercer): a Democratic bill that makes him recall Kathleen Harris, a villain to most Democrats.

Harris was the Florida secretary of state in 2000 who certified George W. Bush as the Sunshine State's presidential victor, a move that gave him enough electoral votes to win the national election after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected legal challenges.

The plan that astounds Baroni? One that would transfer responsibility for the division that runs New Jersey's elections from the attorney general to the secretary of state.

"I am amazed that some of my friends on the other side of the aisle think this is a great idea," said Baroni. "For eight years we have heard my friends on the other side of the aisle - and admittedly, in many cases, rightfully so - say the management of elections should not be in the hands of a partisan elected or appointed official."

The bill has passed the Assembly and the Senate and needs only Democratic Gov. Corzine's signature to become law. Corzine hasn't indicated whether he will sign it, but Democrats hope he will.

They claim the move would actually preserve electoral integrity by separating election administration from election law enforcement.

"This is a common-sense move that's long overdue," said Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D., Essex), a bill sponsor.

New Jersey is the only state that has its attorney general direct elections, according to the National Association of State Elections Directors.

In 38 states, elections are directed by a secretary of state or lieutenant governor, the association said. Eleven states give that authority to elections commissions.

New Jersey's secretary of state oversaw elections until 1998, when the Division of Elections was transferred to the attorney general's office.

The division is responsible for certifying voting machines, overseeing polling place accessibility and regulating voter registration, political party declarations, absentee voting and election district requirements. It's also the filing place for federal and state candidates.

Most states make the secretary of state their chief elections official, Giblin noted.

"It will allow us to reestablish a separation of powers that should exist between the administrators of elections and people responsible for oversight of elections," he said.

But Baroni, who practices election law, said putting election administration in the hands of a non-law enforcement official is risky.

He cited former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell as an example. Blackwell, a Republican, was criticized by some Democrats in 2004 for alleged conflicts of interest and voter disenfranchisement, though a recount showed Bush won the state by 118,000 votes.

"In Republican states and Democratic states, we've seen what happens when you put a political person in charge of elections," Baroni said. "It destabilizes the faith of the people of the state and, in the case of the states of Florida and Ohio, of the country in the management of elections."

New Jersey, he said, "has never once in any election been questioned for its integrity, been questioned for its nonpartisanship, been questioned for leaning one way or another."

Doug Lewis, of the NASED, said nonpartisan election commissions seem the best way to manage elections because they bring the most stability and less staff turnover.