National Public Radio

Text from National Public Radio, Morning Edition

October 4, 2002

Do-Over Democracy
by Russell Roberts

[The following commentary is a look back from the future at the New Jersey Supreme Court decision of October 3, 2002. The court ruled that the Democratic Party could substitute Frank Lautenberg on the ballot for U.S. Senate in New Jersey in place of Robert Torricelli, even though the deadline according to New Jersey state law had already come and gone. Aired originally on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, October 4, 2002.]

With only three weeks to go before election day, it became clear that the 78-year-old Lautenberg no longer had the stamina to successfully challenge Republican Douglas Forrester. Opinion polls showed Lautenberg trailing the Republican businessman by double digits. He was doing no better than the candidate he replaced.

With control of the Senate at stake, Democratic leaders quietly took Lautenberg aside and explained he would have to stand down. In a face-saving gesture, Lautenberg produced a note from his doctor saying that further campaigning was a serious health risk.

While many pundits predicted that Lautenberg would be replaced on the ballot with a member of the New Jersey Congressional delegation, party leaders shocked and thrilled the nation by asking Bruce Springsteen to throw his hat into the ring.

Why did Springsteen say yes? Some say the New Jersey native simply wanted to "make a difference." "I've always been a friend of the working man and woman," Springsteen explained.

Early polls showed Springsteen with an insurmountable lead. His campaign slogan, "Baby, I was born to run," effectively silenced critics' claims that he was unfit for public office.

The Republican Party, seeing the Senate slip from its grasp, immediately yanked Forrester from the race. "Hey," one Republican said, "It's one thing to campaign on a platform of not being Torricelli. What's our guy got to run on now?"

Ultimately, picking a replacement was a no-brainer for the Republicans. After emergency focus groups and a late night session with the Ouija board, Republicans tapped Frank Sinatra.

As one Republican explained, "They had the Boss. So we went and got the Chairman of the Board. It's that simple. Sure, he's dead. But dead candidates have been elected before. His wife Barbara is fit and available if necessary. And he's more New Jersey than Springsteen. He's Hoboken. Besides, he supported the Kennedy tax cuts in the 60's."

How would the Democrats respond? Could they go with George Washington? Forgot the wooden teeth, he was honest. And he could establish residency in New Jersey given his victory at the Battle of Trenton.

Uncertain just where this spiral might end, the two parties met and hammered out a compromise, approved by the courts. Rather than bothering to put a particular candidate's name on the ballot, only the party name appeared in large type. Underneath in parentheses, it read, "Don't Worry, We'll Pick Someone Really Good."

Other states swiftly adopted the same name-free ballot. The result was the end of the wasteful and mistake-prone system known as "Democracy." Voters now simply rely on the party leadership to make the right choice.