“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
New Jersey has never elected a candidate like Rep. George Santos. The party selection system prevents it and safeguards the voting public against candidates like George Santos while creating accountability by county political party leaders to pick the candidates that best represent the party values of the people in their county.
Some people think New Jersey should abolish the so-called “party-line” ballots used in New Jersey primary elections. While the rationale behind the latest bill introduced in the state legislature is understandably populist, the proposed changes would result in weaker, un-vetted candidates and undermine the efforts of party leaders to present a unified party message.
History of the County Line
New Jersey is the only state in the country that organizes its primary election ballots by bracketing groupings of candidates together, rather than by listing the office sought followed immediately by the names of all candidates in a column. The most prominent group of candidates on New Jersey’s primary ballot includes those endorsed by either the Democratic or Republican Party.
Candidates endorsed by the county party, who are all bracketed together and thus appear with a slate of similarly endorsed candidates, appear in a single column of the ballot with the same slogan. This is referred to as the “county line.” The county line generally gets the most coveted location in one of the first columns or rows on the ballot. So-called unbracketed candidates who did not receive the party’s endorsement are placed multiple columns or rows away, sometimes grouped together and sometimes divided by multiple rows and columns.
New Jersey previously banned party committees from endorsing candidates prior to a primary election. However, the law was struck down following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Eu v. S.F Cnty. Democratic Cent. Comm., 489 U.S. 214 (1989).
In Eu, the Supreme Court invalidated California election laws that prohibited the official governing bodies of political parties from endorsing or opposing candidates in primary elections, and made it a misdemeanor for any candidate in a primary to claim official party endorsement. According to the Court, the laws burdened the First Amendment rights of political parties and their members without serving a compelling state interest. The Appellate Division of New Jersey’s Superior Court subsequently concluded that New Jersey’s ban on primary endorsements violated the “free speech principles articulated by the Supreme Court in Eu.”
Legislation to Reform NJ Ballots
While New Jersey courts have been reluctant to disturb New Jersey’s county-line system, it is not without critics. State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Lawrence) recently became one of the highest-ranking New Jersey politicians to publicly call for ending the county line system. “People now are more open to competitiveness in politics, and not just having a party decide who the candidate’s going to be,” Turner said. “Let the people decide.”
Like Turner, proponents of ballot reform maintain that the existing county-line system unfairly steers voters toward a short list of approved candidates. They also maintain that voter confusion over the ballots leads to overvotes and undervotes.
A federal court lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the line is also ongoing. The plaintiffs in the suit, which include several unsuccessful progressive candidates and the group called New Jersey Working Families, allege that the county-line system puts off-the-line challengers at a significant disadvantage.
Current System Allows Parties to Select the Strongest Candidates
Admittedly, no election system is perfect. However, the alleged flaws of the county-line system don’t outweigh its benefits to both parties.
Primary elections often involve a large field of candidates, with many of them unknown to the general public. The county-line system helps ensure that the strongest possible candidates will be selected to represent the party.
Most county parties use some sort of established vetting process, such as screening committees or conventions to select candidates. The process helps identify weak candidates, as well as those who may be plagued by scandal during the general election process. Once the party selects a candidate, it can then dedicate its resources to the most viable candidates and boost its party’s chances for success in the general election.