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Monday, May 20, 2024

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Review & Opinion

Ballot Siberia? No — Let the People Decide, Not Party Bosses

Responding to a legal challenge filed by U.S. Representative Andy Kim (NJ-03), a federal judge has ended the use of the county line ballot format for Democrats for New Jersey’s June primaries. The judge clarified his ruling banning the use of the ballot format for one party and not the other, explaining that the court had no specific challenge before it to the Republican ballot. He left no doubt that his ruling would have encompassed the Republican primary ballot if he had the opportunity to do so.

A review and presentation of primary ballots in all 50 states by New Jersey Policy Perspective shows the practice known as the county line ballot is unique to the Garden State. Opponents of the practice say that it gives county party leaders significant power to decide who wins primary elections. It is a format that has been used in New Jersey for over two decades. County party organizations reacted with outrage when the court ruling required a change in the ballots.

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NJ’s system gives unfair advantage to party-endorsed candidates and maintains a false sense of citizen choice.

The current system discourages those who do not receive

the county party endorsement from running.

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So what is the county line ballot?

Before New Jersey had primary elections parties nominated candidates at conventions based often on selections made by a small group of party leaders. New Jersey was an early advocate for direct primary elections, which shifted power away from party bosses to the voters. What followed were years in which party leaders formed social clubs to endorse party candidates and a series of court decisions allowed for preferential treatment on the ballot.

Eventually the county party committees took on the task of giving official party endorsements, which included a grouping of endorsed candidates in a line on the ballot regardless of office being sought. Candidates without the county organization endorsement received less advantageous positions on the ballot. The grouping of endorsed candidates, often in the most prominent position on the ballot, is what is known as the county line.

The litigation brought by Andy Kim challenged the way in which primary ballots are structured in 19 of the state’s 21 counties. It claimed, and the court agreed, that the unique system used in New Jersey gives unfair advantage to party-endorsed candidates on the county line. Candidates without the county party endorsement can find themselves in positions at the ballot’s edge known as “Ballot Siberia.”

The point is that primary elections were established to remove the power to pick a party’s candidates from the small cadre of party bosses. They were established to let the party’s electorate decide on candidates. Bringing candidates together on the ballot who are seeking the same office allows the voter to decide who should have the party’s designation in the general election.

The only reason to oppose the change in ballot format is to maintain a false sense of citizen choice while really keeping the power to select the party’s candidates in the hands of party bosses. It is antithetical to the democratic process and makes a mockery of the primary election.

The county line discourages those who do not receive the county party endorsement from running. That limits the democratic process. As one group of Rutgers University experts put it, “The end of the county line will force candidates and political parties to invest resources in communicating their ideas to the voters.”

The preliminary injunction, issued by the federal court has already survived emergency motions to stay its impact. The New Jersey Attorney General has even taken the public stand that he would not defend the county line, which he calls unconstitutional. Almost all of the county clerks have withdrawn from any appeal of the ruling. Only the Camden County Democratic Committee continues to pursue it.

It is possible that the county line will be out for both parties in time for the gubernatorial candidates who enter the 2025 primary election.

That is how it should be. The county line has existed too long. The party bosses, be they Democrat or Republican, should have no oversized role in selecting the party’s candidates for the general election.

Primary elections were established to give voice to the voters. That should be their purpose. The private interests of the party bosses have for too long interfered with the collective power of the people.

It is an unjust system and it is time it ends. The unique New Jersey county line system is, and has always been, anti-democratic.

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From the Bible: Save me from the injustice of man. — From the 119th Psalm

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