Murphy campaign request for earlier debates is denied

Moving two debates would have catered to early voters, campaign said

By: - August 25, 2021 2:18 pm

Republican Jack Ciattarelli, left, and Gov. Phil Murphy sparred Tuesday night about the state’s response to Hurricane Ida, COVID-19, and Ciattarelli’s appearance at a pro-Trump rally. (Amanda Brown and Danielle Richards for the New Jersey Monitor)

The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission on Wednesday denied a request made by Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign to move up the second gubernatorial debate and lone lieutenant governor debate.

“As long as it’s within the prescribed statutory and regulatory timeframe, the commission isn’t called upon in the rules or the statute to get involved in the date absent a conflict or an emergency situation where the date would then have to be changed,” ELEC Director of Compliance Stephanie Olivo said.

The debate between Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver and former state Sen. Diane Allen is set for Oct. 5, with the second gubernatorial debate to follow a week later, on Oct. 12, ELEC Chairman Eric Jaso said.

The governor’s campaign asked the commission to schedule those two debates within a week of the first stand-off between Murphy and former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican nominee for governor. They wanted the debate for lieutenant governor held on Sept. 30, with an Oct. 5 date for the second gubernatorial debate.

The Democrats did not ask for the first gubernatorial debate, slated for Sept. 28, be rescheduled.

Debra Falk, a spokesperson for debate sponsor NJ PBS, said the Oct. 12 date is tentative and could shift if the Murphy campaign appeals ELEC’s decision.

The rationale behind the request, commissioners said, was to hold the debates before large swaths of voters could return mail-in ballots or pull the lever at an early voting polling place.

Election officials must start sending out vote-by-mail ballots by Sept. 18, and early voting stations will be open between Oct. 23 and Oct. 31.

In denying the Murphy campaign’s request, ELEC commissioners cited regulations that left scheduling in the hands of debate sponsors and the absence of an emergent need to shift to an earlier schedule.

Jaso and other members of the commission also expressed concern that a condensed debate schedule would leave some late-campaign issues off the debate stage.

“I think there is arguably a public interest in having earlier debates, there’s also a public interest in having the debates spread out somewhat,” Jaso said, adding that another ELEC commissioner “alluded to this in his comments by talking about the need for potential voters to digest what they’ve heard, and as we all know, a lot can happen during a campaign season.”

Neither campaign had a representative speak before the commission Wednesday.

Ciattarelli’s campaign has, in recent weeks, asked the incumbent’s team for an earlier debate, saying it worries many voters will have already cast their ballots by the time the two candidates meet on the debate stage.

ELEC regulations require commission-sponsored debates be held between Sept. 21 and Oct. 22, though there is nothing preventing the candidates from participating in other, earlier forums.

In a letter sent to Murphy last week, the Republican said groups, including the League of Women Voters, which has hosted congressional and legislative debates in recent years, had expressed interest in hosting earlier on-stage contests between the two candidates.

A Murphy campaign official told the New Jersey Monitor the Democratic team had not accepted that invitation but had not ruled out the prospect of additional debates.

The campaigns’ concerns about votes being cast before residents have a chance to see the two candidates face off on stage are legitimate.

Mail-in voting has become increasingly commonplace in New Jersey in recent years, and this year’s primary results suggest its use will become even more widespread in the future.

Nearly 29% of 2021’s primary voters returned their ballot through the mail, compared to 22.7% in 2019’s primary and 6.6% in 2018’s intra-party races. Murphy ordered all 2020 elections be held almost exclusively through mail-in ballots over concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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