Little competition for NJ Legislature primaries, and ballot gives party favorites an edge

May 30, 2023

The New Jersey State Legislature now has more open seats — races without an incumbent running — than at any time in the last 12 years.

In most states, that would be expected to increase the number of competitive races. But that hasn’t happened in New Jersey, where most races in the June 6 primary are uncontested.

“Even when incumbents are stepping away, even when there is a climate that should encourage competition, our system is such that there really is no competition and a lot of ballots have no contested races at all,” said Julia Sass Rubin, associate professor at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. She researches the impact of ballot design and party endorsements on New Jersey elections…

County party organizations endorse candidates for each office, with the exception of two lightly populated, rural counties: Salem and Sussex. Those endorsed candidates are placed in a single column or row. The “county line” typically includes the names voters might find most familiar — such as candidates running for governor, president or the U.S. Senate — leading the slate, though this year, there are no statewide races. The practice sways many party faithful to vote for everyone on the line, according to Rubin’s research for the New Jersey Policy Perspective think tank.

New Jersey is the only state in the country where ballots are organized into lines of endorsed slates.

“It’s not really how democracy is supposed to work,” Sass Rubin said. “The reason we have primaries is because we decided to let individual voters decide who should be their candidate, not the parties.”

Sass Rubin says it’s not just the lack of competitive races that expose the problems with New Jersey’s ballot system. It also can be demonstrated by those who drop out and never run.

“Chiaravalloti was in the leadership. He’s an incumbent. He’s well-liked. He has a lot of support. He decides not to run for re-election because he knows he’s gonna lose in the primary,” Sass Rubin said. “And there are many, many examples like this. So it’s not surprising that once the endorsements are announced, people drop out, and that’s why we don’t have a choice.”

Gothamist, May 30, 2023

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