New Jersey Primary Election Ballots Rigged | Notice
By Ronald Chen and John Farmer, Jr.
Now that the 2021 primary elections are over, the stakes of the continuing challenge to New Jersey’s practice of designing primary ballots to reflect the approval (or lack thereof) by the county party leadership. may appear reduced. In our opinion, however, the primary election has become one of the last and best opportunities to provide New Jersey voters with a meaningful choice of candidates. Because the county line ballot structure dilutes this opportunity, it should be eliminated.
Our point of view is informed by our involvement in the Congressional redistribution and legislative redistribution processes in 2011. By seeking to design competitive constituencies for general elections, in which voters could reasonably believe their choice would affect the election. result, we were faced with a brutal emerging reality. : Many areas of New Jersey are dominated by one of the two main parties. Increasingly, that party is the Democratic Party, but where Republican votes exist, they also tend to be geographically concentrated. It was extraordinarily difficult to design ridings that would be competitive without violating the other legal principles – compactness, contiguity, equal number of voters per riding – which guide the process.
Given Democratic dominance in much of the state, many seats in both the state legislature and Congress have been “secure” Democratic seats. To the extent that competition has existed, it has tended to occur in areas where there are many independent voters or where Republican constituencies overlap growing Democratic enclaves. But Republican state lawmakers representing largely Republican parts of the state – Republicans outnumber Democrats in 6 of New Jersey’s 21 counties – are also relatively immune to competition in November.
The importance of the June primary elections is therefore clear: because most seats are “secure,” the winner of the June party primaries becomes a prohibitive favorite to win the November general election. If, in turn, the main winner is also predetermined, voting in New Jersey would be an empty charade of democracy. Yet the evidence is compelling that this is precisely the intention and effect of the “county line” primary ballot.
As Professor Rutgers Julia Sass Rubin explained in her 2020 report, “Toeing the Line: New Jersey Primary Bulletins Enable Party Insiders To Pick Winners,” unlike all other states and the District of Columbia, in which the ballots are organized according to offices. being sought, in 19 of New Jersey’s 21 counties, “primary polls are organized around a list of candidates approved by the Democratic Party or the Republican Party … [and] are presented on the ballot as a vertical or horizontal line of names. Candidates who are not on the line are placed in other columns or rows, sometimes far from the candidates in the county line.
This game “causes voters not to realize that certain positions are contested or to disqualify their vote by mistakenly voting for too many candidates for a given position.” It also encourages voters to choose candidates on the county line – an easy to find and visually consistent option. The county line is further favored by the placement of better-known candidates, such as those running for President, US Senator or Governor, at the top of the line…. “
Given the benefits of ballot positioning, in addition to the legitimate financial and other organizational support that comes with party approval, very few candidates who are not favored by the county line are able to compete. carry. Professor Rubin cites a CWA study showing that no New Jersey legislature lost a primary from 2009 to 2018; by contrast, in New York City, 22 state legislature holders lost primaries during the same period. It’s no wonder, then, that after the recent primary in June 2021, Politico’s Matt Friedman said the winner would be the party line ballot more than any individual candidate.
When an outgoing member of the Legislature loses his seat these days, it is usually not because of the legitimate rejection of the voters, but rather because whoever controls the county line, often the county president of the gone, simply decides for some unexplained reason to call on someone else, which has happened three times in this year’s primary season alone. The implications of this for democracy in New Jersey are worrying. It allows entrenched political machines to remain in power and thwart the ambitions of emerging and historically marginalized groups. A candidate, even an incumbent, must tailor his positions to satisfy the party establishment rather than voters whose wishes a primary election is ostensibly designed to measure.
The dividing line discourages candidates from deviating from the dictates of party insiders, and thus encourages them to see themselves as representing the interests of party insiders more than the public welfare. It leaves important public policy decisions to the deliberations of unelected private bosses, who serve as puppeteers on matters involving their interests, and thwarts any effort to hold those private interests accountable.
Where is political power in New Jersey? Almost half of the electorate – 2.4 million, compared to 2 million Democrats and around 800,000 Republicans according to recent estimates, do not identify with any party, cannot vote in primaries and vote in general elections in districts “Safe” where there are few opportunities to express independence. Additionally, the party’s grassroots voters are presented with candidates handpicked and backed by county organizations and with primary ballots designed to direct them to candidates selected by county party insiders.
Votes in New Jersey may not be actively suppressed, with classic measures like literacy tests or voting taxes, but they are devalued to a vanishing point by a system that 1.) guarantees that most of the general election seats are “safe” and thus engage in a meaningful way. competition in party primaries, 2.) prohibits plurality of voters from participating in primaries, and 3.) structures the ballots in these primaries so that those who are allowed to vote are oriented towards choices favored by the bosses .
County line litigation is significant because when primary ballots are purposely rigged to favor county leaders, the power of choice of New Jersey voters is almost wiped out, leaving state policy to be guided, to an unwarranted extent, by the interests of the unelected and irresponsible power brokers.
John Farmer, Jr. was Attorney General of New Jersey from 1999-2006. He is currently Director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
Ronald K. Chen is Professor Emeritus of Law and Judge Leonard I. Garth Scholar. Previously, he was the dean of the School of Law-Newark and the first co-dean of the Rutgers Law School. He is also the former New Jersey public attorney.
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