A Chance to End the Party Machine’s Undemocratic Control in New Jersey

March 12, 2024

In New Jersey, candidates backed by political parties get a more prominent spot on the ballot. This has been going on for years as a vestige of party machine power, particularly among Democrats, and it’s an archaic, indefensible practice deliberately designed to mislead voters.

It really works, too. If the party likes you, then you get the line, a favored position on the left-hand side of the ballot, but if not, you’re off to the right in ballot Siberia, as it’s known, where many voters may never see your name. One study by Rutgers University [written by Professor Julia Sass Rubin] found that being granted the line gives congressional candidates a 38-point advantage. Though party machines dominate other states, too, this particular method of control is unique to New Jersey. One expert described it as that “special New Jersey sauce.

Tammy Murphy, a Democrat who is married to Gov. Philip Murphy, is running for the Senate seat now occupied by Robert Menendez and won the line in many counties because many of the county political bosses owe their allegiance to the governor. Last month, one of her strongest opponents in the June 4 Democratic primary, Representative Andy Kim, filed a federal lawsuit challenging the ballot system.

Kim noted that under the system, favored candidates like Murphy would appear in the same column as the most prominent Democrats, including President Biden, giving them an advantage.

Kim’s lawsuit says the practice is unconstitutional and violates the 14th Amendment. On Sunday he got some surprising and important support from the New Jersey attorney general, Matt Platkin, who agreed that the line is unconstitutional and said he would not defend it when Kim’s case comes to trial.

With any luck, U.S. District Court Judge Zahid Quraishi will agree, and the county line practice will be scrapped. Party machine politics leads to political dysfunction, erodes trust in government and frustrates voters. It’s among the last things American democracy needs.

The New York Times March 12, 2024

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