On Thursday, history was made in Mercer County. The Democratic County Committee convention voted to part with decades of tradition by holding a fair vote for whom to endorse, rather than automatically endorsing all incumbents en masse. This is no small matter. In some sense, it has been years in the making, part of a movement to restore democracy to New Jersey.
Two races were contested — LD 16 Assembly and County Commissioner — with multiple challengers in each. The Mercer County Committee by-laws, which call for a fair vote between all candidates, had been routinely suspended and replaced with automatic endorsement by acclamation for all incumbents. This year, Frances Carroll of Hamilton, who is part of a newly formed group of “Mercer County Progressives,” made a motion to require incumbents in contested races to compete for endorsement on equal footing with challengers. The motion was approved by 65.5% of county committee members.
Most incumbents still won. Assemblyman Roy Freiman of LD 16, who requested in advance to waive incumbency protections, won the endorsement of the committee with 66% approval, and incumbent County Commissioner Samuel T. Frisby Sr. won the endorsement with 71% of the votes.
This is how it should be: If incumbents have represented their constituents well, their actions in service to the community will be rewarded. A call for open and fair elections is not an attempt to remove all incumbents from office. It is a call for accountability — elections in a true democracy should not be for life.
The change enacted by the Mercer County Democratic Committee meant that newcomers had a fair chance of being elected not only to “open” seats where the incumbent had decided not to run, but for all seats. In the Commissioner race, this is what allowed Terrance Stokes, of Ewing, to obtain the committee’s endorsement after two rounds of runoff voting. The excitement in the (virtual) room was palpable.
This is a microcosm of the state of democracy throughout New Jersey. Because of the incredible advantages of the “county line,” which all but ensures that endorsed candidates are elected to office, candidates and representatives are not accountable to voters, but rather beholden to those who endorse them — most often, not even the county committee members, but rather a handful of county party chairs and political insiders.
Mercer County’s Democratic county committee, with Chairwoman Janice Mironov at its helm, leads New Jersey in transparency and fair process. Yet even in Mercer, open elections cannot be taken for granted. The pro-democracy amendment process that took place at the convention was the result of considerable grassroots organizing to make committee members aware of the proposed change in bylaws.
Thursday’s change to party procedures was also the result of years of groundwork by the non-partisan grassroots group Good Government Coalition of New Jersey (GGCNJ). Indeed, all three candidates who won endorsement for County Commissioner had been endorsed by GGCNJ for their commitment to fairness, transparency, and accountability.
GGCNJ has been training county committee members to exercise their powers to promote better processes for years. More recently, GGCNJ has been giving presentations all over the state, and in particular in Mercer County, promoting its Better Ballots NJ campaign. This campaign aims to reform the structure of New Jersey’s primary ballots to bring them in line with primary ballots used by every other state in the nation, so they are less confusing for voters and give all candidates a fair chance to be selected.
Through these presentations, residents are becoming increasingly aware of the undemocratic nature of our current endorsement processes, which make elected officials reliant on party insiders rather than voters for their reelection, undermining accountability and good government. An open, inclusive, and fair election process empowers voters and strengthens our democratic institutions.
What two-thirds of the 400 county committee members in Mercer demanded in the convention is what all voters in New Jersey deserve: a fair process in which all candidates can compete on a level playing field. This will not hurt incumbents who are true servants to the public. On the contrary — winning fairly is a much stronger endorsement going into the primary and general elections. Incumbents and party leaders should trust the democratic system. It is not without flaws, but it works more often than not.
The show of a vibrant democracy in Mercer should not be a lone example — all counties should follow with open and fair conventions. And more importantly: the county line should be abolished so all voters can enjoy the benefits of accountable representation and true democracy.
Yael Niv is President of the Good Government Coalition of New Jersey and a member of the Mercer Democratic County Committee.