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New Jersey Democratic State Committee counsel Raj Parikh. Photo courtesy of Genova Burns.

Democrats say postponing county committee elections is recommendation, not a mandate

Currie doubts primary will be postponed, but says all-VBM primary is possible

By David Wildstein, March 20 2020 3:38 pm

Democratic State Chairman John Currie said he doesn’t expect the primary date to be postponed, but acknowledged the prospect that the June 2 election would be conducted entire by mail.

“I think it would have to be something really dramatic and drastic that we change the primary date,” Currie said. “It’s possible that we go to all vote-by-mail.”

New Jersey Democratic State Committee officials made it clear that their push to extend the terms of county committee members across the state was merely a recommendation and not a directive on a conference call with county chairs today.

“The idea was to give you all a pathway for flexibility,” said Raj Parikh, counsel to the state party.  “The state committee is not mandating anything, nor would we.”

Among the elasticities of the emergency caused the deadly coronavirus pandemic is an ability for county chairs and their executive boards to extend the current terms of county committee members for an additional year and have them run in June 2021.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the county chair gets to extend their own terms.  Indeed, one option is for the old county committee to re-elect them at a June reorganization.  Or not.

“Whichever way you want to slice it, you can do it,” Parikh said, noting that a judges requirement would be a fair process measured against the public health crisis.

Final decisions need to be made by the March 30 filing deadline, or at least within a few days after that, Parikh told chairs.

Mercer County Democratic chair Janice Mironov said she was worried about a perception that the state party was “almost telling us to do this.”

“You need to be really careful that you just had a discussion on a possible option under the circumstances,” she said.

Mironov said county committee petitions in East Windsor, where she is the longtime mayor, have already been filed.  So have other most other Mercer municipalities.

“People did kind of get it together in anticipation,” Mironov said.

One of Mironov’s concerns is that incumbent county committee whose terms are up in June might be different than some of the people who have filed in their district.

Mironov hinted that Mercer Democrats plan to keep their county committee candidates on the ballot this year.

“I understand each of us is in a very different place,” she said.  “We’ll make different decisions.”

She cautioned the state party to be clear that the final authority rests with each county.

Currie agreed.

“That’s going to be up to your own organization,” the state chairman told Mironov.

Essex County Democratic chairman LeRoy Jones, Jr., who is slated to become state chairman in 2021, said that extending terms of county committee “is an independent and parochial decision each county will make.”

“I don’t think any of us in our by-laws have a section on pandemics” Jones said.

Saily Avelenda, the state committee executive director, said her memo to county chairs yesterday was “clearly styled as a recommendation, because we don’t have the power to tell you individually what to do under your by-laws.”

“County committees can still conduct regular business.  We are not even touching that. That is part of your decision making process about how you want to handle the reorg,” Avelenda said.  “So everything that comes out of here is essentially a recommendation or advice or some sort of scenario you can consider.”

According to Mironov, “recommendations are different than options or whatever.”

Currie did suggest that if county organizations decide to extend the terms of current county committees, they should also include extending the terms of officers.

“I would suggest, if you’re putting this resolution out, I would include the executive committee, if the county committee’s term is going to be changed,” Currie said.

Extending terms could come with some risk, Parikh explained, if intra-party rivals mount a legal challenge to the move.  But he cited Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order on social distancing and case law from the 1960s regarding by-laws for county organizations as reason why he thinks emergency actions would stand up in court.

“From a practical perspective, judges are going to look at this, somebody filing suit, and say ‘are you serious?” Parikh told the chairs.

“I know we are sometimes regionally divided, which is unfortunate, I think we should all jump in on this,” said Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Michael Suleiman said.  “I think it makes sense that the party is unified on this.”

County clerks have reached out to party chairs and expressed concern that printing ballots for individual county committee races could be challenging this year, Somerset County Democratic chair Peg Schaffer reported, “especially if we go to an all-VBM.”

Suleiman, renewed his push for an all-VBM primary election.

”I  think we have to do all mail-in voting for the primary,” Suleiman said. “I don’t see how we can have in-person voting.

Gov. Phil Murphy ordered some local elections in May to be conducted entirely through mail-in ballots.  He stopped short of extending that to the primary, but suggested that he won’t hesitate to order that if it’s necessary.

Hunterdon County Democratic chair Arlene Quinones Perez told her colleagues that she’s leaning toward extending the terms of county committee, but that she would likely hold a reorganization meeting in June as scheduled.

Chip Robinson, the Morris County Democratic chair, supports extending county committee terms but worries that his by-laws require an in-person meeting of at least 86 people from thirteen municipalities  to approve it.

“My fear is that I have no power to do that,” he said.

Parikh told chairs that the governor’s executive order banning large meetings will enable him to get around his by-laws by holding his vote by telephone or online.

“I cannot imagine under these circumstances, that if you decided to put out something that says ‘this is our process,” Parikh said.  “We can’t have an in-person meeting because of the directives of the governor and it would be improper for us to do so’ that a judge is somehow going to tell you that you were improper because you didn’t hold an in-person meeting.  I just don’t see that ever happening.”

Some confusion still exists over municipal committee reorganizations, since they are legally separate entities to county organizations with their own by-laws.

Parikh cautioned against county organizations directing municipal chairs to cancel their statutorily-mandated June reorganization meeting.

“What I would suggest that you put in a recommendation rather than a directive,” he said.

The call was scheduled after some county chairs expressed disappointment that they did not get a heads up from the governor’s office or Currie about yesterday’s executive order changing election dates, or about a state party email announcing changes to the delegate petition process and the extension of county committee elections.

“This call was helpful … I know there are extraordinary circumstances maybe having calls like this prior to actually rolling something out, just so you can hear and understand in entirety some of the issues you have to contend with on the ground,” said Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe.  “I think we’re all eager to get on a phone call.”

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