May 7, 2014 at 12:17 AM
NEWARK, NJ - Christopher J. Durkin was sworn into the office of Essex County Clerk on January 1 of 2006 and has lost none of the enthusiasm he began with more than eight years ago.
“I enjoy people,” Durkin, who grew up in Maplewood, said. “In this position, we interact with quite a few people.”
The County Clerk’s office serves a number of different functions that keep a steady stream of people coming through their doors: Election Services; Voter Registration; Passport Services; County Identification; Wedding Ceremonies; Records Services; Business Trade Names; Licensing for physicians and notary publics; and more.
With election season approaching, voting issues were on Durkin’s mind. Many voters in the state are unaware that they have the right to vote by mail, a change that was made in New Jersey in 2009, before which the state only allowed absentee voting by mail for individuals who knew they would be away from their home voting district on Election Day. Now, all voter may vote by mail if they choose.
“In some other states, like Oregon and Washington, all voting is done by mail. There is no Election Day voting,” Durkin said. “California is about 65% vote by mail. Colorado is over 70%. Here in New Jersey it’s only about 8%, which is not much different than prior to the change in 2009.”
Durkin attributes the low demand for mail-in ballots to the ease of voting in the state.
“In New Jersey, it’s easy to vote on Election Day. There’s a 14-hour window of voting. The voting districts are small, averaging 800 voters per district. And with the number of voters who actually turn out to vote, spread over a 14-hour day, lines don’t build up,” Durkin said. “With these other states where lines form, they have regionalized their polling places, where sometimes 10,000 or 20,000 people are assigned to the same polling place. When people have to wait for hours to vote, they are going to start voting by mail in greater numbers.”
Another little-known voting fact in New Jersey, Durkin points out, is that people have the right to vote in person for 45 days prior to the election day at the Clerk’s office. He said that for people who know they will be away on election day, this is a vital service that not enough people know about.
Durkin grew up in a household where public service was a way of life. His father was a Newark fireman, and then became the Purchasing Director of Essex County and was the Essex County Democratic Chairman and later the state Democratic Chairman. His mother is the Tax Administrator for Essex County and has always volunteered for various organizations.
“I grew up in a household that valued public service,” he said. “I won’t say that I wanted to always get into government and politics. It’s what my interest was and what I knew, so after I graduated from Columbia High School, I majored in Political Science at Rutgers.”
After graduation, he taught math and English to people transitioning from welfare to work as a job placement officer. Then he went into public safety as an administrator in the Essex County Sherriff’s office. He then decided to attend the police academy and became a police officer and then a detective. He also went back to school to earn a Masters in Human Resources from Seton Hall University. He then left the Sherriff’s Department to become the Director of Human Resources for the County of Essex under County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo.
“In 2002, working on the campaign for Joe D, it first stoked the flames for me to want to serve in an elected capacity,” Durkin said. “I was always interested in it, but I wasn’t sure I wanted it to be my calling.” He said the County Clerk’s position is for someone who enjoys the election process and wants to make it more inclusive, to increase voter turnout, and enjoys interacting with the public – all traits that should serve him well when he runs for reelection next year.
The Essex County Clerk’s Office is located at 465 Martin Luther King Boulevard in Newark; 973-621-4921.