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New Jersey Working Families state director Sue Altman (right) and Collingswood Democratic Municipal Chair Kate Delany stump for the off-the-line Cumberland County slate on July 4, 2020. (Photo: Facebook).

Altman: Turner should push for legislation banning county lines

Working Families Party is heavily involved in lawsuit challenging system’s constitutionality

By Joey Fox, January 12 2023 4:34 pm

With State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Lawrence) telling the New Jersey Globe that she supports overhauling New Jersey’s party line system, Working Families Party state director Sue Altman – a frequent tub-thumper for progressive caucuses – said today that Turner and other like-minded legislators should push to outlaw county organization lines entirely.

“We’re delighted and very thrilled to hear that Senator Turner supports abolishing the line,” Altman said. “We look forward to working with her and other forward-thinking legislators … on coming up with legislation that will permanently and forever and in totality abolish the line.”

In nearly all of New Jersey’s 21 counties, county Democratic and Republican parties award official organization lines to candidates for federal, state, and local office, giving those candidates a better position on the primary ballot itself. The line is so powerful that it has essentially become a shorthand for New Jersey’s entire party system, which prioritizes backroom maneuvering and generally discourages competitive primaries.

The Working Families Party is currently challenging the constitutionality of the line system in federal court; it’s not clear when the case might be resolved. But in the meantime, Altman said that she’s heard from a number of New Jersey politicians who would like to see the line be eliminated in one way or another. 

“Politically talented and ambitious people who don’t want to be bound by party politics are very quietly in favor of abolishing the line,” she said. “Those people are not coming out for it, though, because they know that it would carry with it great risk to their own careers.”

Turner is possibly the only New Jersey legislator to openly and explicitly call for ending the line, but a 2021 questionnaire conducted by the Good Government Coalition of New Jersey indicates she may have a small number of allies in the legislature.

In determining its endorsements for the 2021 election cycle, the coalition asked candidates a series of questions on good-government reforms, including one question about the county line. Turner checked the box indicating she supported open primaries, but did not provide any additional comment.

Three other legislators – Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Hamilton), State Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick), and Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Paterson) – also ticked (or, in Zwicker’s case, half-ticked) that same box. In written comments, all three expressed support for reforming the current system to some degree, though Benson and Zwicker both stopped well short of calling for an immediate end to the line.

This quartet of line-skeptical legislators is vastly outnumbered, however, by the huge number of state politicians who strongly support the line. Any legislation Turner or others might introduce would stand no chance of making it very far in a legislature dominated by politicians who have spent their entire careers running and winning on party lines.

That could change if the state’s leader, Gov. Phil Murphy, were to come out in favor of reform. But asked repeatedly by the New Jersey Globe over the years about this possibility, Murphy has always declined to give a definitive stance.

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