KIYC: Nearly 40 percent of NJ lawmakers were appointed to office

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KIYC: Nearly 40 percent of NJ lawmakers were appointed to office KIYC: Nearly 40 percent of NJ lawmakers were appointed to office

All 120 seats in the New Jersey legislature are up for grabs Tuesday and, as usual, most incumbents are overwhelmingly favored to win reelection. But a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds nearly 40 percent of those incumbents were never elected to office to begin with, raising questions about whether New Jersey's election rules gives political parties too much power at voters' expense.

You could say Senator Kristin Corrado (R - Wayne) and Senator Colin Bell (D - Northfield) are running for reelection Tuesday, except that neither was elected. Both were both sworn into office last month. They were chosen by their parties to replace state lawmakers who resigned, rather than getting elected to office. That's the same way nearly four in ten current state lawmakers began their careers in Trenton.

That first appointment can give a politician an edge that lasts for decades, analysts say, because once a state lawmaker gets in office, they're rarely voted out. A Ballotpedia study of state legislative races nationwide found that in the past 40 years, incumbents nationwide have never won less than 90 percent of the time.

"The incumbent name tends to be more familiar, or voters may know more about the incumbent, or the incumbent may have helped them in some way," says John Weingart, assistant director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. 

Here in New Jersey, the list of lawmakers who got their start being appointed, rather than elected, includes some high-powered names, including both Senate Democratic Leader Loretta Weinberg and Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean Junior. In the Assembly, both Speaker Vincent Prieto, a Democrat, and Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, a Republican, were initially appointed to office.

Bramnick disputes the notion that being appointed to office initially gave him a significant edge, although he agrees legislative races are not competitive enough. He points to the way the state's legislative map is drawn.

"These districts are so gerrymandered that in some districts, a Republican can never win, in some districts, a Democrat can never win," Bramnick says.

The other problem, according to Weingart, is that there are no perfect alternatives. New Jersey once held special elections to fill vacant seats, as 25 states still do. Voters opted to change that system decades ago, believing those elections were too expensive.   

"There'd be the expense to the state of running the election," Weingart says, "and then a current Assemblyman would often be elected to the Senate and there'd be an empty Assembly seat, and you'd have to have another special election." 

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