New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy’s entrance into the primary race for a U.S. Senate seat is mobilizing progressive activists to make the ballot a campaign issue in the 2024 race.
A new statewide alliance of progressive organizations is asking all candidates in the Senate race to take a stand against the way primary ballots are laid out in 19 of New Jersey’s 21 counties because, they said, it gives an unfair advantage to those endorsed by the county party organizations.
The new umbrella group, Fair Ballot Alliance NJ, is asking the Senate candidates to call for ballots that are like those used by all other states in the country — where the candidates for a particular office are listed together.
In New Jersey, all the candidates endorsed by a county party organization are grouped in one row or column known as “the county line,” from the candidate for president on down to to local offices. In a few counties, those endorsements are decided through conventions; in most, they’re handed out by party bosses.
In the days immediately after Murphy announced her candidacy, the party chairmen of the counties with the largest number of registered Democrats declared their endorsements of her. Those counties, with their large number of voters, provide a path to victory in a statewide race. And for most Democrats, a primary win would lead directly to a general election victory; the state hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate in more than 50 years
“This is before any conventions have been undertaken,” Uyen Khuong, executive director of Action Together New Jersey said. “Yet these six county chairs have come out and endorsed her within four days of her announcement.”
Fair Ballot Alliance says it does not object to endorsements and other party support for candidates, but it considers the county line a form of electioneering.
“The place for that is not on the ballot. It’s in a lot of other promotion materials and election materials, but not on the ballot,” Yael Niv, a member of the alliance and the Good Government Coalition of New Jersey, said. “That is basically campaigning inside the ballot booth, which is not allowed.”
Research by Julia Sass Rubin of the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University shows that placement on the county line gives candidates an average of 38% more votes than their competitors, and no state legislative incumbent has lost a primary since 2009 when they’ve been put on the county line.
In 2021, New Jersey Working Families Alliance filed a federal lawsuit against the county line that is still making its way through the court system. Tuesday’s announcement takes the issue directly to one of the biggest races in New Jersey politics, the U.S. Senate race.
The seat up in 2024 is currently held by incumbent Sen. Bob Menendez, who has been indicted and accused of bribery, corruption and serving as an agent of the Egyptian government. He has lost the support of the Democratic party organizations, which means he will not be listed on the county line. Menendez has said he won’t step down from office, but hasn’t said yet if he’ll run again in 2024.
In addition to Murphy and potentially Menendez, U.S. Rep. Andy Kim is also running in the Democratic primary for the seat.
Kim has spoken out against the county line, but he previously said he would seek it if that’s the system in place when he is running.
“This is and should be a process where the people of New Jersey get to choose,” Kim told Gothamist earlier this month. “And I think that there’s been a backlash because there’s a real feeling that the party leaders are putting their thumb on the scale.”
Murphy is less critical of the process.
“Congressman Kim has said he will use every tool at his disposal to win this election, and that includes his actively seeking the county lines in this primary,” Alexandra Altman, a spokeswoman for Murphy, said in a written statement Tuesday. “The only difference is that Tammy has been thrilled to earn that support from Democratic party leaders.”
Menendez and Kim have not responded to requests for comment Tuesday.