Understanding the party line in NJ

December 4, 2023

A new article by a Rutgers University professor is said to further confirm the power of the party line in choosing candidates for public office: No New Jersey legislative incumbent who won the county line in all counties in his district has lost a primary in 14 years. 

Julia Sass Rubin, a professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Public Policy, last looked at the party line in 2020. It’s a practice unique to New Jersey of grouping candidates who win the backing of county political parties, or sometimes just the party chair, along the same line on primary ballots. Her updated report, published in the Seton Hall Journal of Legislation and Public Policy, includes data on the last four primaries for state and federal offices. The study, opponents of the county line contend, provides further proof of the influence the line has on voters’ choices and the hard time challengers have in defeating incumbents who win endorsements. 

These endorsements, attributed to the county parties, in some cases are made by one person, vesting a lot of power in the county party chairs, Rubin wrote. She cited the recent example of the Democratic party chairs in four counties – Bergen, Camden, Hudson and Middlesex – endorsing first lady Tammy Murphy within two days of her announcing her candidacy for the 2024 U.S. Senate nomination and seven months before the primary. According to the report, most county party bylaws are “silent” on the endorsement process.  

“It is too early to know if a county committee vote will still take place in those counties or how a county committee vote would be influenced by the state preferences of those county party chairs,” Rubin wrote. 

Her report suggests there may be some other anti-democratic consequences of the line. For one, the edge that candidates who get the line have discourages primary challengers. Following redistricting and a “historically large” number of retirements, only 11.3% of this year’s legislative primaries were contested, according to the report. It also states that the ability of party chairs to determine who gets the line “contributes to the state’s relatively low percentages of women” in high office: New Jersey has had only one governor and seven members of Congress, and ranks 21st for the percentage of women in the Legislature. 

A lawsuit by several losing primary candidates and the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, challenging the design of primary ballots that use the party line, remains pending almost three years after it was filed. It is unclear whether the suit will be decided before next June’s primary. 

Rubin spoke more with NJ Spotlight News about her study and the party line. 

Q: How did New Jersey end up with the county line ballot? 

A: Brett Pugach wrote a very good Rutgers Law Review article that provides a detailed account of how New Jersey ended up with the county line primary ballot. Essentially, New Jersey  was run by political machines that nominated candidates in back room deals.  A series of reforms were implemented by the state legislature starting in 1903 to introduce direct primaries that would enable voters to select the candidates, to try and break up the power of the political machines and give voice to the voters. In 1911, in connection with the passage of the Garen Act, one of the most powerful of those reforms, which was intended to “break up the private and secret management of party machines,” then New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that the current election system presents “nothing more than a choice between one set of machine nominees and another.” The reforms were successful to various levels, but the political machines regained control of New Jersey’s political system with the help of a series of legal decisions and that’s how we ended up here and with the county line. 

Q: What is the most significant finding from your Seton Hall article? 

A: I analyzed the results of New Jersey U.S. House and Senate primary election contests held between 2002 and 2022 in which political parties in different counties endorsed different primary candidates in the same contest. Between 2002 and 2022, 45 congressional and senatorial candidates appeared on the county line in at least one county and had at least one opponent on the county line in a different county. Every one of those 45 candidates performed substantially better when they were on the county line than when their opponent was on the county line. The difference in performance ranged from 13 to 79 percentage points, with an average of 38 percentage points. Three of those 45 candidates were incumbents – Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who split county endorsements with Congressman Rob Andrews in the 2008 Democratic senatorial primary, and Congressmen Bill Pascrell and Steven Rothman, who split endorsements with each other in the 9th congressional district in the 2012 Democratic primary, following redistricting. In each of those primaries, being on the county line provided a greater advantage than incumbency. Lautenberg, Pascrell, and Rothman lost every county in which their opponent was on the county line and won every county in which they were on the county line. 

Q: What’s changed, if anything, from your 2020 research? 

A: My 2020 research examined the impact of the county line on the 2020 primary. My new research looks at 20 years of U.S. House and Senate primaries. The findings are remarkably consistent. In the 2020 study, I found that a candidate did an average of 35 percentage points better when they were on the county line than when their opponent was on the county line. In analyzing 20 years of U.S. House and Senate elections, I found that this average was 38 percentage points. 

Q: Have things gotten better or worse for candidates? 

A: It was never easy to win off the county line but it appears to have become more difficult to do so over the last 15 years.  

Q: Does the county line provide any benefit to voters? 

A: You could argue that the county line makes it easier to decide whom to vote for by eliminating options, since candidates who are not awarded the county line tend to drop out. In 2021, for example, only 10% of New Jersey’s legislative positions were contested in the primary. Two years later, following redistricting that saw the retirement of a historically large number of incumbents, the percentage of contested primaries increased only minutely to 11.3%, one of the lowest percentages nationally. 

The county line and the county party tagline also communicate to voters which candidates have been endorsed by the county party chairs. If that is determined to be helpful information, it could be communicated to voters via just the county party tagline, without using a county line primary ballot. 

Q: The ballot can sometimes be confusing, too, it seems. Why did Mercer place two congressional candidates on the county line in the 4th Congressional District in 2020? 

A: The Mercer Democratic county committee bylaws stipulate that candidates who get at least 40% of the vote at the county nominating convention have the option to run on the county line. Christine Conforti received the majority of the convention vote but Stephanie Schmid cleared the 40% hurdle, so they both ended up on the county line. New Jersey primary voters are encouraged by the county parties, and conditioned by years of practice, to vote for all the candidates on the county line. In this case, placing both Christine Conforti and Stephanie Schmid on the same county line resulted in many voters selecting both of them, even though the ballot instructed them to vote for only one candidate. Since everyone voted on paper ballots in the 2020 primary, there was no way to catch overvotes, and 32.4% of the votes cast in this congressional contest had to be discarded because those voters chose both candidates. 

Q: Do county committee members really make the decisions, or is the endorsement made by the county party chairs? 

A: The county party chairs have the legal authority to decide whom to endorse, as Brett Pugach explains in his 2020 Rutgers Law Review article. In some countries, there is an endorsement process that involves county committee members voting at a nominating convention. The chairs have many ways of influencing that process and ultimately may ignore the county committee’s recommendations. In other counties, there is no pretense of a county committee selection process. 

The chairs in the handful of counties with the largest voting base have an outsized influence in a statewide race. In the 2017 gubernatorial primary, the last statewide primary without an incumbent, five counties – Bergen, Camden, Essex, Hudson and Middlesex – accounted for 49% of all the Democratic primary votes cast for Governor. So five men essentially decided who would be nominated. 

Q: Is the line equally problematic in both parties? 

A: The problem is the same. However, since Democrats control the legislature and the majority of congressional seats and most of the counties with the largest numbers of voters are majority Democratic, the impact of the county line on Democratic primaries gets more attention. ne. Two of them were Republicans – Assemblywomen Serena DiMaso and BettyLou DeCroce in 2021 – and one of them was a Democrat – Senator Nia Gill in 2023. 

Q: Which counties do not award the county line? 

A: Salem and Sussex counties do not use county line primary ballots in either their Democratic or Republican primaries. 

Q: What is the solution? 

A: The solution is the Legislature passing a law that requires New Jersey to use an office block primary ballot, like those used in other states, which lists all the candidates beneath the position they are seeking. To make the ballot truly fair, the candidate order would be randomized by precinct, as is done in at least fifteen other states. Salem and Sussex counties use office block ballots for both Democratic and Republican primaries and Morris used an office block primary ballot for Republican primaries until a few years ago. As recently as 2020, six counties still used an office block design for their paper primary ballots. So, it would not be difficult to make this change. The challenge is that most New Jersey state legislators are reluctant to publicly endorse changing the primary ballot out of concern that the party chairs in their counties would remove them from the county line and they would be defeated in the next primary election. 

NJ Spotlight News, December 4, 2023

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