Maplewood Dems Questioned ‘County Line’ Years Ago; Now It’s Big News

March 20, 2024

In February 2022, the Maplewood Democratic Committee overwhelmingly voted to do away with the “county line” for local primary elections, taking a distinctly progressive position in a statewide discussion on ballot reform. Although the initial vote was for a one-year pilot, the MDC has since amended its bylaws to make the change permanent.

It was an edgy decision at the time.

But, now, the question of the “county line” has gone mainstream.

As The New York Times reported, although a lawsuit challenging the system was filed in 2020, [I]t was not until last month — when Andy Kim, a Democratic congressman from South Jersey who is competing for a Senate seat now held by Robert Menendez, filed his own legal challenge to the practice — that the long-smoldering issue caught fire.”

Kim’s main challenger in the primary is New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy, who “had lined up backing from Democratic leaders in one-third of the state’s counties” when she declared her candidacy in December, according to The New York Times.

The County Line

As Village Green reported in 2022, New Jersey is the only state in the U.S. with a county line.

According to Prof. Julia Sass Rubin of the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, the county line often assures candidates of winning their primaries. Rubin reported that, as of 2022, no New Jersey state legislative incumbent on the county line had lost a primary in the last 12 years.

The practice is the subject of a federal lawsuit (Conforti v. Hanlon), challenging its constitutionality. In 2022, an amicus brief was filed in the suit by the League of Women Voters of New Jersey and Salvation & Social Justice, represented by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice & Campaign Legal Center. The case remains undecided. Additionally, a bill that would abolish the line was introduced in the NJ Senate in 2023.

Ultimately, says Rubin, because party chairs and/or party insiders have the power to determine who goes on the county line, “Elected officials become beholden to a few party insiders, not to the voters.”

Read more here: So What’s All This Talk About the ‘County Line’?

Former Maplewood Mayor Frank McGehee ran an unsuccessful “off-line” campaign for the NJ Assembly seat representing Maplewood and South Orange in 2023.

MDC’s New Resolutions

Earlier this month, the Maplewood Democratic Committee passed resolutions in support of office block ballot design for Maplewood for all elected offices, as well as supporting a County Democratic Convention to vote for the endorsement of candidates. MDC Chair Ian Grodman noted that the MDC “has been a leader in efforts to reform the electoral process.”

Per the MDC’s “office block” resolution (see below), such a ballot would “list all candidates for each office on a single line or in a single column, rather than the current practice of placing candidates preferred by the Essex County Democratic Party on the top line, known as the ‘county line.’ This request is made to encourage candidate participation and because the present practice provides an unfair advantage to primary election candidates on the ‘county line.’”

LeRoy Jones, Chair of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee and Essex County Democratic Committee, recently indicated some openness to changes.

The Village Green, March 20, 2024

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