New Jersey politics: Why primary ballots make all the difference

Stuart Shapiro welcomes Associate Professor of Public Policy Julia Rubin to our episode of EJB Talks this week.  She shares her personal experience starting an NJ-based educational grassroots organization that exposed her to the institutional aspects of New Jersey politics. She also discusses her recent article on the role of political machines in New Jersey and how the design of ballots favor some candidates over others.

Stuart Shapiro
Welcome to another episode of EJB Talks. I’m Stuart Shapiro, the Associate Dean of Faculty at the Bloustein School, and the purpose of this podcast is to talk with my colleagues and our alumni about issues affecting people in New Jersey, the United States and the world.

One of my fascinations is the intersection between politics and public policymaking. But I have to admit only a few of my colleagues reach my level of obsession with politics. One of them who does is Associate Professor Julia Rubin. Professor Rubin teaches in our Public Policy Program, has helped found the group Save Our Schools New Jersey, and has recently written an article on machine politics in New Jersey. Julia, thanks for coming on the podcast.

Julia Rubin
Thank you very much, Stuart. It’s my pleasure.

Stuart Shapiro
Can you start by talking about your recent history in advocacy and how you came to focus on New Jersey machine politics?

Julia Rubin
That’s a great question. So as you mentioned, I helped start an organization called Save Our Schools New Jersey a decade ago as a parent; it’s a grassroots parental organization. And as I became involved in advocating for public education, I was really surprised to find that policies that were overwhelmingly popular, or were overwhelmingly opposed, didn’t translate in those terms, in terms of the New Jersey Legislature. So for example, I saw policies like expansion of high stakes standardized testing, or diversion of public education funding to private and religious schools–which were very unpopular with the population of the state–be supported at the state level by our legislature. And I wanted to understand why this was happening. Why, in a state like New Jersey, which demographically really should be a relatively progressive state, why that was not what I was seeing legislatively.

And so I started looking into this. And what I discovered is that there are various institutional aspects of New Jersey politics that basically insulate the legislature from popular accountability. And they enable political machines to control the legislature. And undoubtedly the most, the most important and the most powerful of these is the county line. But let me stop with that for a second. Come back to that one. And if I may, I can just go through what some of those are.

Stuart Shapiro
Sure.

Julia Rubin
So, the way the legislature is set up, it is effectively managed… controlled by two people, the Senate President, the New Jersey Senate President, and the New Jersey Assembly Speaker. So no legislation can advance without their blessing. They decide committee assignments, they decide who leads what committees, they decide what bills a committee hears, and what moves from committee–even if the committee approves that it has to go to the full chamber–they decide which bills go to the full chamber and get voted on. So no legislation can happen without these two individuals. And it has been men; legislators who are in their good graces get rewarded, and legislators who in any way cross them get punished. They get taken off desirable committees, they lose leadership positions. And I can give you specific examples, but this has happened multiple times.

They also control legislative leadership packs that give them a substantial advantage in fundraising and enable them to reward their allies with campaign contributions. So that’s one… that’s not only in New Jersey, but it’s really powerful in New Jersey. But a few other things that are really specific to New Jersey. So, we have a lack of… we don’t have a statewide media, we have a lack of media. There’s nothing that’s read or watched by most of the state. And so, people are getting their information from very different venues. And a lot of those venues are focused on Pennsylvania or New York, you know. So the northern part of the state really focuses on the New York market. The southern part of the state focuses on Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. And so New Jersey gets split up and there isn’t like a unifying media presence. We don’t have an initiative or referendum process. So there’s no way for the people of the state to go around the legislature. Let’s say there was something we really wanted to enact into law. If the legislative leadership of these two men did not want to make that a law, it will not happen. Regardless of how much people might want to, there’s no way to put it directly on the ballot.

We have largely non-competitive legislative districts. Almost every district in the state, maybe there’s a handful of districts that’s in play in any legislative cycle. And so if you win the primary, you basically win the general election. This means that those who control the primary process, those who can determine who’s going to win the primary nomination, essentially put legislators into office. And then as I discussed, they control what they do once they’re in office. We have very restrictive laws around the formation of political parties. We have the Democrats, we have the Republicans. It’s almost impossible for a third party to form and that’s very atypical. New York has eight political parties. Connecticut has multiple political parties. So there are all these institutional factors. And then the biggest one is the county line and the way our ballots are designed. Do you want me to…?

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, we’ll come back to that in a second. I want to go back for a second and sort of talk about the sort of, as a good social scientist defining your terms here. In terms of machine politics, I mean that means, you know, lots of different things to different people. You know, I think of Tammany Hall and I think of Boss Tweed when I think of machine politics.

Julia Rubin
Right, that’s exactly it.

Stuart Shapiro
And that had, you know, that had, you know, tremendous corruption implications. It also had the effect of bringing people into the political process that weren’t in the political process before. But you’re also talking about other things, sort of parties and media, some of which are true on the national stage. I mean, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell have a tremendous amount of power in Congress. So can you sort of laser in on what you’re talking about when you talk about machine politics?

Julia Rubin
I think you were exactly on the money when you talked about Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall in New York City, you know, a hundred plus years ago. That is not that different from how New Jersey political machines operate right now. They are run by, “bosses.” And those bosses control jobs and other resources. And that’s how the patronage system and that’s how they maintain their political power. And they stay in power–the machines–by being able to deliver votes and campaign funding and boots on the ground to candidates to get them elected. And, since New Jersey has a part-time legislature, we even have legislators who work for these machine bosses in their day jobs. And of course, they also–legislators– benefit from contracts and business arrangements, as do others who are part of the machine. And they could jeopardize that if they anger the bosses.

So George Norcross is the chairman of an insurance brokerage firm. And he controls the most powerful machine, which is basically all of South Jersey. That accounts for about a quarter of all the Democratic state lawmakers. And then he makes alliances with other regional bosses in Middlesex County, right now there’s a strong alliance with Middlesex County and they control the state assembly. Their person is the assembly speaker. And Essex County, he’s had a long-standing alliance with the Essex County machine. And this extends his reach. So between these multiple machines, when they form these alliances, they have enough votes from the various legislators that are accountable to these machines to decide who’s going to run the assembly and who’s going to run the Senate. And that’s how they control the legislature. And then this feeds into this cycle where controlling the legislature allows you to generate all these other resources, and allows you to get reelected and to become wealthy. And so it is very much the Boss Tweed/Tammany Hall model, kind of updated to the modern era.

Stuart Shapiro
So, one thing about the Tammany Hall model is, of course, they also deliver things to the voters. Either in the form of jobs or a sense of community or those kinds of things. What what are these machines delivering to their voters that keep them loyal?

Julia Rubin
Well, they deliver things to their immediate followers. So for example, in South Jersey, a lot of the machines, kind of, cogs, are in the system. They work for a county or a city. In terms of their voters, that’s not really how they stay in power. The way that they stay in power is that they control the legislative, excuse me, the electoral process through the ballot. Now if they did something incredibly unpopular, they would get pushback. It’s not to say that we have no democracy whatsoever.

Stuart Shapiro
Right.

Julia Rubin
But it’s just that because the state doesn’t have a media market that covers the state. And because there’s so much going on in the state legislature really doesn’t get much coverage, especially as the media, as all media has shrunk, and become much less comprehensive in what they can cover because of lack of resources. Most people aren’t following things that closely. So unless it’s a really major issue that gets statewide play, and gets picked up, people aren’t really aware of what they’re doing. So a lot of what they’re doing kind of is almost hidden from public view. And there are all sorts of shenanigans. For example, posting bills right before they’re voted on; not, you know, canceling meetings; not allowing people to testify. And then there’s been some real ugly in process in the legislature. Certainly, if something is incredibly high profile.

So for example, a few years ago, we had the gerrymandering proposal which they put forward. This was one of the few instances of democratic gerrymandering, and it got a substantial amount of pushback. Every good government group in the state; you know, League of Women Voters, everybody came out against it. And it was still going to happen. Except then it got national play. And, you know, you had Obama administration officials coming out against it. And at that point, it just was too high profile. So in something like that, you can push back against them. But the way that they stay in power is not by pleasing the voters. They stay in power by, I would say deceiving the voters through the ballot. And through all these other institutional mechanisms that I mentioned.

Stuart Shapiro
I interrupted you before when you were about to get started on the primary ballot. Can you talk a little bit about the structure of the primary ballot and how that is a mechanism for ensuring electoral outcomes?

Julia Rubin
Sure, I think it’s probably the mechanism. So in New Jersey, primary ballots do not look like primary ballots in any other state in the country. Nor in Washington D.C. I actually looked at multiple counties in every state. You can’t look at every primary ballot, there are millions of them. But I looked at primary ballots in every state, looking at the larger counties, which are responsible for most of the voters. And what I saw were, basically, there are two models nationally. The most popular one is you have the office is listed, and beneath that are the people running for that office. And there are little bubbles that you fill for each one, whoever you want to select for each office. The other model is, you know, there’s the office listed and on the right of it are the people running for that office.

In New Jersey in 19 of our 21 counties, we have something called the “county line.” And people who voted in New Jersey their whole lives may not even register that our ballots are different. But they are really, really different. So what the county line does is it takes every person, who’s been endorsed by the county level party organization, and puts them on either a vertical or horizontal line on the ballot. And then anyone who’s not endorsed is put on a separate column or separate line. And sometimes they are multiple columns away from the endorsed candidates. And the endorsed candidates–which is, this is what we’re talking about when we say the county line–are often in the best position on the ballot. They’re usually in the first or second column. And then that column is headed by whatever the highest-ranking office in that cycle is. So this time, it will be the President. In an off-year election, you might have you know, the governor or a senator, or in New Jersey’s legislature, because we’re off-cycle with the federal elections. You might have a state senator. But whoever is the highest, most likely to be known by the voters’ position, is at the top of the line.

And so, what it tends to do is it kind of encourages the voter just to go straight down the line and vote for everyone who’s been endorsed. And many of those people they won’t know. You know, they might know the states’ U.S. Senator, but they won’t know, like, the county freeholders–which are not even going to be called freeholders anymore–but they won’t know those local and county level positions. And so, it just encourages them to vote straight down and support the people who’ve been anointed by the party organization. And when you hear a party organization, you might think, oh, this is a democratic process. You know, everybody who knows the political system gets together, and they democratically decide who’s going to get endorsed. That’s not how it works.

There are a few counties in New Jersey where it actually does kind of work like that. For example, Mercer has a primary decision-making process through a convention where all the locally-elected county committee members–and there are hundreds of them–from all over Mercer County come together and they decide who’s going to get endorsed. But in most counties, it’s basically a couple of guys or maybe a woman or two in a room. It’s really very much like what you envision, you know, 150 years ago, smoke-filled rooms, with party insiders, minus the smoke. So it’s not a democratic process. And you saw that play out in this election cycle as well. And we can talk about that in terms of congressional district, too, in South Jersey. So the ballot is really powerful. This county line is incredibly powerful, I would say, virtually deterministic, in who wins the primary election right.

Stuart Shapiro
In this case, you got to run with Joe Biden, essentially in this election.

Julia Rubin
Yes.

Stuart Shapiro
So, let’s talk about the primary that just happened. How did this play out? How did it affect the primary we just had on July 7?

Julia Rubin
Right, so you know, the votes are obviously not fully totaled. We are still waiting for provisional ballots. But it’s fairly clear what has happened. I don’t think we have any really outstanding races left. And I’ll just focus on a couple of examples. But you see this consistently, you know, play out across the state, but I’ll just give you a couple of sort of top lines.

So I mentioned the second congressional district This is the district that Jeff Van Drew represents in Congress, and he was a Democrat. And then in December, he said that he could not support President Trump’s impeachment and he became a Republican. And within a couple of days of that, Bridget Harrison, who is a professor at Montclair, declared that she’s going to run for that seat. And within two days of her declaring, she had been endorsed by Senate President Steve Sweeney, and by six of the eight Democratic party chairmen, who are in that congressional district. It’s a district that includes eight counties; some just have like, a town or two towns, but others it’s the entire county is in that district. So six of the eight chairs, who are all part of, or have been traditionally part of, the South Jersey machine that I mentioned–that George Norcross kind of heads–all endorsed Bridget Harrison. Before anyone else really even had a chance to announce. Subsequently, four other candidates declared. And the most prominent among them was Amy Kennedy, who is married to former Senator Ted Kennedy’s son. So she, you know, has a lot of name recognition from her family, and she had resources.

And so, it was a very interesting campaign. And what happened was the six counties that endorsed Bridget Harrison gave her the line. So in those six counties, she had the right to be on that column. Except one of those is Salem County, which does not have a line. Two counties don’t have a line and Salem is one of them. Two of the eight counties did not endorse Bridgette Harrison. One didn’t endorse anybody, Ocean County. And one county–Atlantic–endorsed Amy Kennedy and it had a popular vote, which is how, you know, she got the endorsement. As opposed to the six guys who just said, okay, we’re going to give this to Bridget Harrison.

So it was a really interesting campaign. And Amy Kennedy–it was a blowout. Amy Kennedy won, every one of the eight counties. And so, you might say, well, then you know, what good did the line do, right? But, her win was so powerful that the line could not stop her. But you still saw a substantial impact from the line. Let me give you some examples. The percentage of the total vote that Amy Kennedy got varied by 32 percentage points in these eight counties. In Gloucester, which is one of the six that endorsed Bridget Harrison, she got 45 of the vote. That’s a huge swing. And you might say, well, that’s just those two counties. There might be other variables right. In the three counties where Amy Kennedy either had the line, no one had the line, or in the case of Salem Bridget Harrison had the line but there was no line physically on the ballot–it was a normal looking ballot–Amy Kennedy won 74 of the vote. That’s a huge differential. And the only real substance of difference is, you know, the line, basically.

Stuart Shapiro
Right.

Julia Rubin
She wasn’t endorsed in Salem, someone else was endorsed in Salem. And if you have time for one more quick example.

Stuart Shapiro
Yep, sure.

Julia Rubin
This one’s actually in Mercer; it’s Congressional District 4. And you had three candidates. One candidate got the line and Mercer, Christine Conforti; and one candidate got the line in Monmouth and Ocean, Stephanie Schmidt. Stephanie Schmidt is winning Monmouth and Ocean by 73 and 78. But here… so the line is, again, the only difference is who got the line.

Stuart Shapiro
Right.

Julia Rubin
There’s not really any substantive differences. But here’s the other interesting thing. So in Mercer, there’s this weird quirk where, if you get a certain percentage of the vote in the convention, you can be on the line, even if you don’t have the endorsement of the Democratic Party. And so what happened is, in Mercer, they put both Christine Conforti and Stephanie Schmidt on the line, one beneath the other. But everybody’s used to just going down the line and voting. And we don’t have machines to stop overvotes in this particular cycle, because everybody voted by paper. So what happened? Two candidates on the line? People went down and voted for both of them!

Stuart Shapiro
Right!

Julia Rubin
Almost a third of the ballots were disqualified!

Stuart Shapiro
Wow.

Julia Rubin
Well, 28 of the 28% were overvotes. Because the line is so ingrained in New Jersey voters, they just, they don’t even look to see how many people they should vote for. They just go down the column and vote.

Stuart Shapiro
Right.

Julia Rubin
I went in there! (laughing)

Stuart Shapiro
Those are great examples Let’s end up by bringing this back to policy. We’ve had a lot of our podcast episodes on the various crises. We’re facing COVID-19, the recession, the racial protests after the George Floyd murder.

Julia Rubin
Right!

Stuart Shapiro
What is the effect of all of these, machine politics, power allocation, etc., on actual policy that affects people?

Julia Rubin
Right, it’s so many impacts. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of this you don’t see play out. It’s sort of in the background. And that general sense people have that New Jersey is corrupt? You know, it’s all those little deals that are happening behind the scenes and that this enables. But on a more kind of, more visible level, a couple of things I would point to. So you mentioned, you know, COVID, and, you know, the economic situation. So, Steve Sweeney has, up until very recently…so there’s a huge budget shortfall, right? There was a projected budget shortfall of $10 billion, initially, in terms of the rest of this last fiscal year and the start of the next fiscal year. And Governor Murphy said we’re going to need to borrow, expand our borrowing capacity because otherwise, we’re going to have dramatic cuts. I mean, that’s a quarter of our state budget, we would have to devastate our schools, health services, everything. So we’ve got to borrow to try to get through this and hope that the federal government will step in.

And for a long time, Steve Sweeney said no, no, no, you know, I don’t think that makes sense. It’s not appropriate, sounding an awful lot like, basically President Trump and other Republicans. And you might say, well, he’s just a conservative guy, he’s from South Jersey. Certainly, that’s part of it. But I think that the policies that are not really popular with the state at large, you can get away with them if you don’t have to worry about the voters. And so, that’s one of the ways that this plays out on the ground, you know, this time able to control the legislature, the ability to get reelected without really worrying about what the voters want. Another example is the millionaire’s tax. And I think they, the legislature, passed it under Christie four or five times. And Sweeney has refused to put it up for a vote. Even though it’s very popular, overwhelmingly popular, and we could use the revenue!

Stuart Shapiro
Right.

Julia Rubin
And then there are the indirect examples. I’ll give you just one. The legislature, the Senate Judiciary Committee, approves the most powerful authorities and boards around the state, judgeships. And so the governor gets to nominate people, but he can’t actually put them in office. They have to be voted on by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which means it’s controlled by Sweeney. And so, Governor Christie and Sweeney jointly appointed a whole bunch of those positions that were vacant in the last year before Murphy took over. Because it became apparent that Murphy was going to be the Democratic nominee. There was a very good chance he was going to win. And so, Sweeney and Christie basically staffed all of these positions, including, for example, the State Board of Education. They put eight people on a 13 member board. And they have not…Christie’s gone. But Sweeney has not allowed Murphy to replace any of those people, even though they’re Republican appointees. Many of them disagree, you know, dramatically, with Murphy on policy and education policy. Overall, more than 40% of Murphy’s nominees for these various judiciary positions for boards, for commissions, have not been approved. And this is a Democratic legislature and a Democratic governor. Right?

Stuart Shapiro
Right.

Julia Rubin
So when you don’t have to worry, when this stuff is not in front of people’s eyes, because there’s not a strong media, and when you don’t have to worry about re-election, it’s, you know, it’s very possible to do things that are wildly unpopular, and get away with them.

Stuart Shapiro
Well, on that depressing note, I think we will end today’s today’s conversation (laughing). Julia, thank you for coming on.

Julia Rubin
Thank you. That was really fun! It went very fast!

Stuart Shapiro
You can read Julia’s article in the American Prospect. It’s really informative and a deep dive into the history of how New Jersey got to where it is today. I’d also like to thank our production team, Tamara Swedberg, Amy Cobb and Karyn Olsen. We will be back next week with another talk from another expert from the Bloustein School. Until then, thanks for listening and stay safe.