NJ’s ballot line system is dead — the ‘magnitude’ will reverberate across politics

March 30, 2024

At the very end of his historic 49-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Zahid Quraishi acknowledged he was setting off a political bomb that would reverberate in New Jersey politics long after the June 4 primary.

“The court wishes to make clear that it recognizes the magnitude of its decision,” he wrote. “The integrity of the democratic process for a primary election is at stake and the remedy plaintiffs are seeking is extraordinary.”

Rarely is a judge more blunt than this. This was not simply a policy nerd fight over the way primary ballots are designed. This was no academic exercise.

Democracy was on the line — a concern that shapes not only this case over the cornerstone of New Jersey elections, but the outcome of the 2024 battle for the presidency. It is the anxiety of the national moment.

And, seen through that lens, the temporary injunction issued Friday aimed to alleviate that fear with a slam-dunk rejection of New Jersey’s Tammany Hall ballot system — the county line, as it’s commonly called — which political bosses use to turn local and state legislators into rubber-stamp stooges for the party machine.

A new foundation

The block ballot is the new foundation for democracy in New Jersey.

Julia Sass Rubin, the Rutgers University professor whose studies of the pernicious effect of the ballot line system persuaded Quraishi to strike it down, says it may take several years for the new system to be embraced by party officials and voters. And she expects the party leaders to push back and find other ways to maintain their power.

But make no mistake: The ruling is a sea change for New Jersey politics, removing an administrative lever that propped up the Garden State’s sclerotic political machines.

“It undermines the entire system of machine power,” Sass Rubin said. “It’s a different world. I just think you’ve taken away such a huge chunk of what they have to keep in power and really the only thing that makes us different.”

She also said elected officials and candidates will now feel free to assert themselves, be “more brave” without fear of retaliation that county chairs will deny them the line for reelection. The ruling also opens the door for wider grassroots involvement in the granular, committee-level seats in county parties now that party-picked candidates will no longer have the advantage of running on the county line.

“I think that the grassroots energy becomes a much more important currency, which is how democracy is supposed to work,” Sass Rubin said.

Northjersey.com, March 30 2024

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