A liberal Mercer County Democrat and a conservative Sussex County Republican probably aren’t going to agree on much, politically. But State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Lawrence) and Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-Hardyston) have found one policy they both support: banning county organizational lines.
Turner told the New Jersey Globe last month that she’d support ending the county line system, which allows county parties to give their preferred candidates preferential placement on primary ballots. Earlier this week, she made good on her word by introducing a bill in the Senate to disallow parties from labeling their endorsement on the ballot.
But Turner’s bill isn’t new; while it’s never been introduced in the Senate before, it’s been bouncing around the Assembly since 2008. And Wirths, who sponsored the Assembly version several times, said today that he’ll introduce it once again this session alongside Turner.
“I still support the idea, and think it’s the right thing to do,” Wirths said. “I’m in the minority, but I’m happy that there’s someone on the other side of the aisle who [agrees].”
Wirths is from Sussex County, where the local Republican Party does not have a county line, instead grouping candidates by office with no clearly distinguished slates on the ballot. Most of the past Assembly sponsors of the bill have been Republicans from either Sussex County or Morris County, which until recently also did not have a Republican organization line.
Assemblyman Parker Space (R-Wantage), Wirths’ running mate in the 24th district, was also a sponsor of the Assembly bill in recent sessions, but he appears to be less definitively supportive of Turner’s revival. He said today that it was “a possibility” he would sign onto the bill this session.
“Different counties have different ideas on how they want to do things, which is fine,” Space said. “I like an open primary, myself.”
Space is running for the State Senate this year to succeed retiring Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho (R-Franklin), and he’ll be seeking to get the county line in Morris County for a potential primary against Steve Lonegan. Wirths, meanwhile, is retiring from the legislature, so he has fewer electoral pressures to consider.
Most of the other previous bill sponsors are long gone from the legislature, but there’s one other who is still around: State Sen. Gordon Johnson (D-Englewood). As an assemblyman, Johnson sponsored the bill in four different legislative sessions between 2008 and 2014, partnering with his then-running mate, former Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood).
But Johnson stopped sponsoring the bill beginning in the 2016-2017 legislative session, and in 2021, he found out for himself just how beneficial county lines can be when he won the Bergen Democratic line for the Senate and crushed Vainieri Huttle in the Democratic primary.
Johnson did not respond to a call today requesting comment on whether he’d consider supporting the bill again.
Of course, even if Turner and Wirths pick up a few more sponsors to their bill, the idea of the legislature voluntarily banning county lines is laughable. The vast majority of legislators are perfectly satisfied with the system that has buoyed their political careers, and even a few more reform-minded legislators like State Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick) and Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Hamilton) have declined to take firm anti-line stances.
The real way the county line may fall is through an ongoing lawsuit in federal court, in which progressive groups are arguing that the advantage the line provides its chosen candidates is unconstitutional. It’s not clear when that case will be resolved; until then, legislators like Turner and Wirths will have to focus on quixotic legislative efforts instead.