Rubin Op Ed: What Must Be Done to Turn New Jersey into a Real Democracy?

April 24, 2024

Princeton, NJ – Editor’s note: Late last month U.S. District Court Judge Zahid Quraishi handed down a decision regarding New Jersey’s “county line” ballot design, which allows county leaders of both major political parties to endorse candidates and then place them on the primary ballot in preferential positions. Candidates not receiving the official party endorsement are placed one or two or three columns to the right. Some call it “ballot Siberia.”

Judge Quraishi ruled in favor of a suit filed by Senate candidate Andy Kim and others asking for a redesign of the ballot in the June Democratic primary. The decision, upheld on April 17 by judges from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, applies only to the June primary. But a similar case may be heard in the fall and could have a greater impact.  

Princeton resident Julia Sass Rubin, an associate professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers who has researched the impact of the “county line” arrangement, testified as an expert witness in the recent hearing. In his March 29 opinion, Judge Quraishi said that he assigned Rubin’s testimony “substantial weight.”

Rubin’s op ed below is based on her presentation at an April 14 panel organized by the Princeton Community Democratic Organization on “Reimagining Democracy in NJ – What’s Next after the County Line?”

For much of the last century, New Jersey has been a political machine state, controlled by a handful of men who run our largest county party organizations.

Political machines are transactional rather than ideological. Their goal is staying in power so that they can benefit financially, not proposing public policies to improve the world.

That is why, while the national Democratic party is focused on small d democracy, campaign finance reform, and election transparency, New Jersey’s Democratic leadership last year pushed through the Orwellian-named Election Transparency Act, which undercut the state’s anti-“pay to play” laws and substantially increased the allowed amounts of campaign donations, while weakening oversight. And why, currently, the legislative leadership is trying to gut the state’s Open Public Records Act. It is why, while national Democrats are fighting to defend public education, more than a dozen New Jersey Democratic state legislators are sponsoring a school voucher bill that would siphon $37.5 million a year from taxpayers for private and religious schools that are completely unaccountable and can discriminate by race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.

The political machines’ most powerful tool for staying in power has been the county line primary ballot. This uniquely New Jersey phenomenon organizes 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 noncompetitive general elections for most county, legislative and congressional positions, this primary ballot has given a handful of party chairs in the 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.

On March 29 District Court Judge Zahid N. Quraishi upended this system by ruling in favor of Democratic Senate candidate and Congressman Andy Kim and congressional candidates Carolyn Rush and Sarah Schoengood, who had requested emergency relief in the form of a ballot like those used in 49 other states. On April 17 Quraishi’s decision was upheld by a panel of judges from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

This decision is limited, impacting only the 2024 Democratic primary. However, the underlying case, Conforti v. Hanlon, is expected to be heard next fall and would have wider implications.

Since two of the three declared candidates for next year’s governor’s race  — Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop — have come out against the county line, there likely would be other candidates asking the courts for emergency relief and an office block ballot for the June 2025 primary.

To preempt additional legal action, New Jersey’s legislative leadership may try to pass legislation creating a different primary ballot that would still enable the political machines to determine who gets elected.

Fortunately, many New Jersey voters are following this issue closely, a number of state legislators have come out in support of fair primary ballots, and there are bills in the works to specify what a good primary ballot should look like.

What other good government reforms do we need to turn New Jersey into a real democracy?

First and foremost, candidate order matters.

There is a rich literature around what is known as the primacy effect that indicates being first on the ballot is helpful.  To counter this effect, many states randomize the order of candidate names by voting district. This is easily done by computer and the process of ballot creation is quick, inexpensive, and fair.  Clerks would not need to draw names from a drum or exercise any discretion in ballot design.

Second, make the county clerk position non-partisan.

County clerks, who supervise our elections, have had to run for office in the Democratic or Republican primaries, making them vulnerable to the wishes of county party chairs. Having partisan clerks also undermines perceptions of their fairness, which is particularly concerning when some voters already doubt the integrity of our elections.

Third, help the voters learn about the candidates.

One of the negative effects of the county line is that voters have not mattered. Because so few of New Jersey’s legislative and congressional districts are competitive in the general election, winning the primary essentially guarantees candidates a win. The power of the county line has meant that the most important thing a candidate can do to win the primary is to get the county line. That has resulted in candidates devoting time and resources to convincing the county chairs and, for counties like Mercer that endorse via a county committee convention, to convincing county committee members to endorse them, rather than convincing the voters at large to vote for them.

Voters are so unimportant that it can be difficult for them to find information about the primary candidates. A few years ago, the League of Women Voters and the Good Government Coalition of NJ asked State Senator Andrew Zwicker to introduce a bill requiring candidates to provide an email when they file to run, so that the League could reach out to them for additional voter information. Senator Zwicker’s bill was signed into law but, in a sign of how little voter outreach matters, all of the Camden Democratic county committee candidates submitted the same email.

Voters are so unimportant that primary ballots often have few or no choices as candidates who do not get the county line tend to drop out. This was evident in Princeton’s 2023 primary ballots, which did not include a single contested race.

Candidates are also not important. In the largest counties, the party chair essentially decides who will get the county line. The fact that the deadline for filing to run is after the endorsement process speaks to how little individual candidates matter.  Former Assemblywoman Jaffer recounted that, while in office, she frequently heard that she was replaceable.

And, since the county party chairs are overwhelmingly white men, the candidates they select also tend to be primarily white and male, resulting in a state legislature that does not reflect the diversity of our state by race, ethnicity, or gender.

Eliminating the county line would mean that there are a greater number of more diverse candidates and that those candidates must engage with the voters to win elections. This will take resources – either a great ground game with volunteers or dollars to break through in New Jersey’s very expensive media market.  County parties will still be able to influence primary election outcomes by providing money and boots on the ground. However, unlike the county line primary ballot, which only the county parties control, candidates can match the power of parties through grassroots organizing and fundraising.

How can the process of familiarizing the voters with the candidates be made more democratic and less vulnerable to big dollars?

New Jersey should look to models from other states. For example:

  • Washington State mails every voter a state General Election Voters’ Pamphlet with information about the candidates.
  • For a few thousand dollars, California allows candidates for state and federal office to purchase space for a 250 word candidate statement in either the state or county voter information guide. To qualify, candidates must agree to abide by specified campaign spending limits.

New Jersey could allow candidates who abide by spending limits to purchase inexpensive space in the sample ballots mailed to all voters ahead of the primary and general elections. This approach would be particularly helpful for women candidates and candidates of color, who tend to have a harder time raising campaign funds.

We need to expand public financing of elections beyond the governorship to include the state legislature and county and local positions.

Six states — Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Minnesota, and New York — currently provide public financing for state legislative races. Hawaii also offers public financing for county races and 26 cities and counties provide such financing for mayor, city council, and county positions.

We need state campaign finance reform.

The Coalition for Integrity’s 2022 State Campaign Finance Index ranked New Jersey campaign finance laws 32nd nationally behind Arizona, Idaho, and Kentucky. They note numerous problems, including a lack of transparency, high limits on contributions, and insufficient oversight power given to the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC). ELECs members are also not protected from political retribution – as was evident when the Election Transparency Act changed ELEC’s composition.

Our contribution limits also increase candidates’ dependence on the political machines by encouraging donations to county or state political party committees and legislative leadership PACs rather than directly to candidates. For example, an individual donor can give up to $2,600 to a candidate in a primary but up to $75,000 to a county or state political party committee or a legislative leadership PAC. And county or state political party committees and legislative leadership PACs are unlimited in how much they can give to candidates and to each other.

The very presence of Leadership PACs empowers political machines. Leadership PACs, which were enacted in 1993 legislation, are controlled by four people — the Senate President and Minority Leader and the Assembly Speaker and Minority Leader.

These four men use the Leadership PACs to help candidates win and to ensure their loyalty.  As former Governor and State Senate President Dick Codey said (quoted in William E. Schluter’s 2017 book, Soft Corruption): “When someone can give you $250,000 or $300,000 for a campaign, you owe them. When an important vote comes up, do you vote your conscience, or do you do what the leadership wants? No one wants to admit it, but it’s a simple fact of life. You’ve got a close race and you need the dough.”

One reflection of the impact of leadership PACs on the concentration of power is that, since their creation, the average tenure of Senate leadership has more than doubled. There were 13 Senate Presidents in the 29 years before Leadership PACs came into existence and five in the 31 years since.

Beyond these legislative changes, we need more transparent and accountable political party organizations. The current U.S. Senate contest has highlighted the problematic top-down governance and endorsement processes in some of New Jersey’s largest county parties. The county chairs make all the decisions while the county committee members, elected in primaries by party members from their voting precincts, have no real power and are vulnerable to retribution. If they displease the county chair, they may lose the county line and their next election.

Political parties are private entities that the Supreme Court has discouraged states from trying to regulate, so reform must come from the inside. Here too, the end of the county line primary ballot should open the way by making it easier for reformers to be elected to county committees. More broadly, without the power to control who wins primaries via a biased ballot, county party chairs will have to focus on convincing voters to support their candidates’ ideas, which is what political parties are supposed to do.

TapintoPrinceton, April 24, 2024

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