New Jersey politics will never be the same – Opinion Rubin

April 2, 2024

A political earthquake just took place in New Jersey.

The state’s powerful political machines, which have dominated Garden State politics and dictated its policies for much of the last century, lost their most potent tool — the “county line” primary ballot. This uniquely New Jersey phenomenon organizes primary ballots around a set of candidates endorsed by a county-level political party rather than grouping them by the office they are seeking, as is done in the rest of the country.

The county line ballot design provides a double-digit electoral advantage to candidates who appear on the line, virtually guaranteeing a win. In combination with New Jersey’s largely uncompetitive general elections, this primary ballot has enabled a handful of county party chairs to decide who is elected to the state legislature, the governorship and even the U.S. House and Senate.

Last weekend, District Court Judge Zahid N. Quraishi upended this system by ruling in favor of Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Andy Kim and two other plaintiffs who requested emergency relief in the form of primary ballots like those used in every other state. If this decision stands — it is being appealed by 15 county clerks — it would only affect Democratic ballots and only for the June 2024 primary. However, the underlying case, filed in 2020 that is also being heard by Judge Quraishi, is ongoing. Furthermore, multiple candidates for next year’s gubernatorial election have come out against the county line, so there are likely to be additional legal challenges.

The end of the county line primary ballots would bring substantial change to the state’s politics and policy.

New Jersey is perhaps the last machine-controlled state. Even as reformers have weakened machine power in nearby New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island, the county line has enabled the state’s party bosses to keep elected officials in line. State legislators or county officials who vote the wrong way risk losing the county line and being defeated in the primary. Recognition of the power of the county line also leads candidates who are not selected to run on the line to drop out, leaving most positions uncontested in the primaries.

Although political machines and the county line are bipartisan phenomena, Democrats have a million-voter advantage in N.J. and control the legislature and governorship. This gives a handful of party chairs in the five largest Democratic counties the power to decide who will serve as President of the State Senate and Speaker of the State Assembly. If the Senate President or Assembly Speaker do not do as those party chairs want, they are replaced, as has happened multiple times over the last decade.

The Senate President and Assembly Speaker have tremendous power, including deciding which bills will move through the legislature. They have used this power to pass laws contrary to the direction of the national Democratic Party.

In the last year alone, the leadership pushed through the Orwellian-named Election Transparency Act, which undercut the state’s anti-“pay to play” laws and substantially increased the amounts campaigns could spend while weakening oversight of that spending. More recently, the leadership has gone after the state’s Open Public Records Act. And last week, 14 Democratic state legislators introduced a school voucher bill that would siphon up to $250 million a year from taxpayers for private and religious schools that can discriminate by race, religion, gender and sexual orientation.

The county line primary ballot also has been a major factor in the state’s legislature being majority white and male, even as New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the country. The state has had only one female governor, only seven congresswomen and is one of a minority of states that have never had a female U.S. senator. The party bosses who determine which candidates get the county line are overwhelmingly white and male, and they tend to endorse those from their own political networks, perpetuating the homogeneity.

The end of the county line should attract a larger number of more diverse candidates to run for public office, providing greater choices to voters and increasing the possibility of more representative elected officials. The end of the county line should force both candidates and political parties to invest resources in communicating their ideas to the voters — a group that hasn’t mattered very much under the current system.

Most importantly, the end of the county line would take away the political machines’ most potent tool for staying in power. Although the machines would still have access to financial resources and some aspects of the patronage system, the end of the county line would greatly diminish their ability to control who is elected. That should not only enable new voices to enter the political space, it also should bolster the willingness of elected officials to do what their voters want, rather than what the political machines demand.

Julia Sass Rubin is on the faculty of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University–New Brunswick, where she also serves as the associate dean of academic programs and director of the Public Policy Program.

The Hill, April 2, 2024

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