A swath of progressive and good government groups launched another campaign seeking to do away with organizational lines Saturday.
In New Jersey, county political parties have the power to award candidates with a favored ballot position — the party line — by bracketing them with other endorsed candidates up and down the ticket.
Better Ballots NJ, a campaign launched by the Good Government Coalition of New Jersey to align the state’s ballots with those of the rest of the country, wants them stripped of that power.
“When we talk about the line, the line is something that really protects power, as has been made clear and obvious, and it allows those who already have control over electoral systems to decide who is going to have the biggest advantage to win elections,” NJ Policy Perspective President Brandon McKoy said. “That is not how we should be doing things in a Democracy.”
Primary challengers have faced little success in New Jersey over the past several decades. Since 1980, only two of 117 congressional primary challengers over the last decade came within striking distance of an incumbent since 1980.
Just nine managed to secure at least 33% of the vote in the last four decades. Three of those candidates did so with at least some party organizations at their back. Not a single primary challenger has ousted an incumbent in at least the last 40 years.
To the groups behind Better Ballots NJ, organizational support amounts to a coronation, even when it fails to win a nomination, as it did in this year’s Democratic primary in the second congressional district.
“My campaign was of interest, and I think that’s because it seemed predetermined at the point that I decided to get involved,” former House candidate Amy Kennedy said. “For those of you who didn’t follow the race in CD2, it was just January when I announced that I was going to get into this race, and at that point, the chairs had already decided who would have the line in the counties, although it was very early in setting the field.”
Days after Rep. Jeff Van Drew’s (R-Dennis) defection to the Republican party, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and six Democratic county chairs in South Jersey backed Montclair University political science professor Brigid Harrison for his seat.
Kennedy won that primary, but she did so after winning the line in Atlantic County. She also had the advantage of belonging to the country’s most storied political dynasty.
The chairs’ early support of Harrison drew attacks from progressives and the other Democratic candidates, who claimed party leaders in the second district were seeking to anoint a nominee, much like, the progressives said, they had done for Van Drew in 2018.
For some, party lines are an issue of representation. While New Jersey numbers among the most diverse states in the country, its legislature is disproportionally white and male.
Patricia Campos-Medina, president of Latinas United for Political Empowerment (LUPE), said that while Latinos account for a fifth of the state’s population, they hold just 9% of seats in the legislature.
“We have been training women to run for office. We have developed a network for them to run for office, but yet over and over again they are challenged by not being able to use their talents because over and over again the ballot design limits their ability to run,” Campos-Medina said. “If they cannot place on the Democratic line, they have a disadvantage both in votes and in money, and in New Jersey politics, the line means money.”
Asian Americans hold just one seat in either legislative chamber despite making up a tenth of the state’s population.
The push to eliminate the party line is likely to be met with heavy resistance from both sides of the aisle. Many — even most — incumbents in the legislature arrived there with organizational support, and some also chair their county party.
Even Gov. Phil Murphy, whose base is made up of progressives who want the line eliminated, has repeatedly declined to back the policy.
“New Jersey’s primary ballots are designed to confuse and deceive voters, distorting the electoral process and undermining real democracy in the state,” Good Government Coalition of New Jersey President Yael Niv said. “Voters in New Jersey deserve better primary ballots”
Correction: A previous version of this article said Campos-Medina was president of the LUPE PAC. She is the organization’s immediate past-president and the current president of LUPE.