Springtime Is Near For New Jersey Politics

[ Posted Tuesday, March 26th, 2024 – 15:56 UTC ]

In much the same way that odious manure previously spread over the ground can give rise to the sweetest-smelling flowers in the spring, New Jersey politics seem to be going through a period of rebirth or re-emergence into the light of a new spring day (perhaps appropriate for "The Garden State," no?). The sleazy scandal which has (so far) successfully brought down Senator Robert Menendez -- complete with 24-karat gold bars seized by the feds -- has tangentially morphed into an attack on the state's "machine politics," and it could all wind up with major reforms in the way local political leaders currently hand-pick their favorite candidates. This is long overdue and although it comes from an unexpected direction (a major scandal not directly related to the reform itself), it should be welcome news for voters in New Jersey -- and anyone else who supports the concept of fairness in politics.

When Menendez had his house searched by the feds, it set off a chain reaction. The scandal itself, as mentioned, was merely the catalyst, so we're not going to delve into it at all here. It's the aftermath that's important.

Since Menendez was so obviously and so badly politically tarnished by the scandal, many expected he would announce he wasn't going to run for re-election this year. This led to a crop of Democratic candidates vying to replace him. Menendez only very recently announced he wouldn't be running as a Democrat (although he left the door open to an independent run, which may be nothing more than a vehicle to continue raising money to pay his legal fees), but the assumption that he was out of the race was good enough for other Democrats to jump in the race.

Two candidates emerged as frontrunners: Representative Andy Kim and Tammy Murphy, who currently holds no political office but does happen to be the wife of the Democratic governor, Phil Murphy. Tammy Murphy was thus seen as the favorite, since she would have the power of "the machine" behind her. Kim was seen as the scrappy underdog, challenging a well-entrenched system.

The current design of New Jersey primary ballots harkens back to an earlier age of American politics. Their design is outmoded and preferential, giving a heavy boost to one particular candidate for each office. In New Jersey parlance, this is known as "the county line." In each county in the state, one candidate is chosen to have his or her name appear on "the line," and by one measure, appearing on the line boosts a candidate's chances of winning by an average of an astonishing 38 percent. That is more than placing just a single thumb on the scale, obviously.

The way it works is that the ballots are arranged as a list of offices for the voters to choose their preferred candidates. Either the top line or the leftmost column (depending on whether the ballot is arranged vertically or horizontally) are all the names the county party bosses have blessed. The other candidates' names are separated by blank spaces and relegated to what is known as "ballot Siberia." Voters wishing to vote for primary candidates not on the county line have to hunt to even find their names, in other words. This is, quite obviously, unfair in the extreme.

The spots on the county lines are doled out by the party bosses, as mentioned. Each county has its own system of doing so. In some counties it is a small group of bosses (or even a single boss) in the proverbial "smoke-filled back rooms" who just make the decision by fiat, while in others a wider group of party members votes in a party convention on who will get each spot.

Once Tammy Murphy announced her candidacy, many county Democratic Party bigwigs announced their support for her. In any political machine, it's always a good idea to stay on the good side of your party's highest-ranking official, right?

But then something interesting happened. In the very first county to hold a convention to name a candidate for the county line spots (which also happened to be Murphy's home county), Kim won by a landslide (265 to 181 votes). It wouldn't be his last upset either, at least in the counties where a wider group of Democrats made the crucial decision.

Kim also sued in federal court to abolish the county line system, on the grounds of unfairness. The state's attorney general recently announced he considered the county line to be unconstitutional and would not defend the practice in court, which may have been its death knell. The judge has yet to rule, but could do so soon (the New Jersey primary is in early June, so at some point it will be impossible to change the ballot design, since they've got to all be printed up beforehand).

This past weekend, Tammy Murphy threw in the towel and exited the race. There are other Democratic candidates running, but at this point Andy Kim has to be seen as the prohibitive favorite. Murphy put out a statement saying, in part:

It is clear to me that continuing in this race will involve waging a very divisive and negative campaign, which I am not willing to do. With Donald Trump on the ballot and so much at stake for our nation, I will not in good conscience waste resources tearing down a fellow Democrat.

This story could have had a different ending, of course. A governor's wife (who had, incidentally, been a registered Republican up until 2014) in such a machine-heavy state should have been a shoo-in for the nomination. If Kim hadn't garnered the support he did, this would have been the likely outcome. New Jersey might have wound up with a husband/wife governor/senator team, which is about as insular as you can get.

Kim is to be applauded, not only for emerging as the clear frontrunner but also for daring to take on the New Jersey Democratic machine in federal court. After Murphy dropped out, he announced he will still be continuing with his court case in an effort to abolish the county line system once and for all: "This is not a system I want to participate in. I think it's unfair."

He's right. It is not only an unfair system, but one that perpetuates the party machine and the party bosses at the expense of giving the voters a free and fair choice. It should be abolished. In many states, placement on the ballot can't even be alphabetized, it must be completely randomized to prevent anyone from gaining an unfair advantage by being the first name on the ballot. The best method is to randomize the list of candidates in each county or district, so that whichever candidate gets selected for the first spot in one random drawing won't have that advantage statewide.

Abolishing the county line won't end New Jersey machine politics all at once, of course. But it will be one gigantic leap in that direction. It will remove a major system of patronage and favoritism that has permeated all politics in the state. If the judge rules against the machine, it will drag New Jersey Democrats kicking and screaming into a much fairer system that greatly lessens the party bosses' power and instead moves that power to where it truly belongs: with the voters themselves.

Springtime in New Jersey politics seems to be right around the corner, in other words.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


One Comment on “Springtime Is Near For New Jersey Politics”

  1. [1] 
    Kick wrote:

    Why do I get the suspicious feeling that this "county line" bullshit is exactly how Chris Christie got elected? This New Jersey Party bosses rigging the ballot in favor of their preferred candidates sounds as dumb as (all) the stupid caucuses.

    Just when I thought nothing good could come out of the latest Menendez corruption, this happens.

    Andy Kim is a decent American.

    I'm going to contribute to his campaign.

    Go get 'em Andy. :)

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