Few of the races in the June 6 New Jersey legislative primary are contested, even though there about twice as many open seats as usual. Political experts say that’s in part due to the “county line” system that gives a boost to candidates endorsed by powerful county political organizations.
The primary election for the entire New Jersey state legislature is Tuesday, June 6th mail-in voting has already begun and early voting begins tomorrow. A wave of retirements in the legislature has created more open seats than the state has seen in 12 years. But WNYC’s Nancy Solomon reports those open seats haven’t resulted in more competitive races.
This is the election for the New Jersey state legislature since the districts were redrawn last year. 26 legislators are stepping down and that’s more than double the typical number. Nationally when incumbents don’t run that increases the competitiveness of election. Julia Sass Rubin, a professor at Rutgers University, says not so.
“In New Jersey, 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.”
In the elections for the 120-member state legislature, only 13% of the races are competitive. Sass Rubin says elections are far less competitive in new Jersey because of the way most county’s lay out their primary ballots. It’s called the county line and it groups candidates who are endorsed by the party committees together with the biggest names at the top of the ticket, usually a governor or US Senator. Sass Rubin crunched the 2020 election numbers and found candidates get a large advantage when they’re on the county line.
“Elected officials know this and candidates know and understand this and so if you don’t get the endorsement of the party if you’re not going to be on the county line, there’s a very strong inducement to drop out because the odds of you losing are just overwhelming.”
One of the few exceptions this year is the newly drawn district that includes part of Newark, Irvington, South Orange, and Maplewood. Incumbent Cleopatra Tucker of Newark and Garnett Hall, a longtime member of the Maplewood Democratic Committee, got the party’s backing for the two Assembly seats and will run on the county line. Another candidate, former Maplewood mayor Frank McGehey, is making the unusual choice. He’s staying in the race without any party endorsement and will have to sit on his own row on the ballot. The endorsement decision was made by the heads of the Essex County Democratic Committee.
“We don’t have a convention. District leaders never vote on anything.”
Rebecca Shear is a resident of Maplewood and a rank-and-file member of the local party committee. She says she likes the two women running but objects to the county line.
“That’s essentially electioneering on the ballot. You know, you have to stand 500 feet away from your polling place if you have any candidate literature, and then voters go right in and they see the ballot. That’s essentially telling them on their ballot, these are the real candidates these are who you want to vote for.”
The endorsement process differs from county to county. But in three of the largest Democratic strongholds — Essex, Camden, and Hudson, the decision is made by party leaders. Hoboken City Council member Tiffany Fisher says she objects to Hudson County’s endorsement process.
“There is a small group of people hand-picking their friends to be in elected roles, in influencing roles. And because of the broken ballot that we have in New Jersey; because of the appointing friends and people close to for those positions, it’s really more of like, an autocracy than it is an actual democracy, right?”
Both parties use the county line, but Matt Hale, a professor of political science at Seton Hall University, says Democrats in New Jersey are better organized and more powerful.
‘In terms of the Republicans, they are a little bit less organized overall, the Democrats. And that leads to the ability of nonparty approved Republicans to take a shot.”
Party members who defend the endorsements say it’s those active in the party who know the candidates’ best. An ongoing court challenge is trying to do away with the county line and a coalition of good-government advocates has formed Better Ballots NJ to fight for reform.
But that’s a difficult mission because almost the entire NewJersey state legislature got there by running on the county line.
WNYC News, June 1, 2023