Surprised to read this heading? Voter suppression? In New Jersey? Aren’t we one of the bluest of Blue States in the nation? How can it be?
Many voters in New Jersey do not know that we are the only state in the country to use a confusing, undemocratic form of ballot, but it’s true – and a source of corruption. It’s called, seemingly innocuously, the “county line.” Every two years at a minimum, the line sneaks into our primaries, unannounced so to speak, and skews the results. And we have the data to prove it (more on that in a moment).
What’s brought this to a head, now in 2024, and captured the public’s attention in New Jersey, is the Democratic primary for U.S. Senator. The incumbent, Robert Menendez, Sr., has been indicted on Federal corruption charges. Indictment or not, Menendez may run for reelection on the primary ballot but many believe his political career is over. Quick to fill the vacuum are two candidates – New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy and U.S. Rep. Andy Kim.
This already has conjured up stories about nepotism, political privilege and, again, the power of the “county line.” The effects of nepotism and political privilege are obvious – Tammy Murphy is the wife of the incumbent governor. The “county line” is more subtle but ultimately more determinative. As we’ve said, it’s at the root of voter suppression for most New Jersey primary contests.
So what is the county line? And what’s the problem?
First, to repeat, New Jersey’s county line ballot is unique among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. All other states use ballots according to an “office bloc” design. Candidates are grouped by office. Endorsements from political parties and other groups are listed under the candidates but, for example, candidates for specific offices, say, the governor, are all grouped together. Not so in New Jersey, in most counties.
In 19 of New Jersey’s 21 counties, party bosses (sometimes, but not always, backed up by county conventions) determine the design of primary ballots – horizontal or vertical line groupings that list favored candidates together for different offices.
Below is the 2021 Republican primary ballot for Morris County, NJ, showing how the line works. In this example, Jack Ciattarelli, who was a candidate for governor, was chosen by the county bosses to head the line. He tops Column 2. Others similarly anointed for state, county and local offices are listed below him. Candidates in the other columns (#’s 1, 3, 4, and 5) are literally isolated away from the line, placed in what is commonly called “Ballot Siberia.” Again, in 19 of 21 counties, that is the New Jersey way!
Defenders of the line, usually county and state party leaders, will say good candidates can win regardless of their position on the ballot. But the data say otherwise.
Rutgers University professor Julia Sass Rubin has done prodigious work analyzing the effects of the county line on four recent primaries for state and federal offices. Her results are stark and unequivocal. According to Prof. Rubin’s findings, primary challengers will frequently drop out because they fear wasting the time and expense of running for office if they don't have the line. Similarly, the power of county bosses to pick their favorite candidates depressed the number of women running for office in New Jersey. Irrespective of gender, candidates performed 35% better on the line than their opponents. Given these findings and data, voter suppression seems a just call. Choosing preordained candidates from neatly organized lines does not seem to be a fair ballot.
How to respond? Prof. Rubin’s research has been published in respected law journals. Hers has also been incorporated into a federal lawsuit brought by the Working Families Alliance. The lawsuit challenges the ballot design as violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments and the election clause of the U.S. Constitution. In May 2022, a judge denied the attempt of opponents to squash this lawsuit, ruling it may proceed to trial.
The wheels of justice grind slowly, as the expression goes. But when First Lady Tammy Murphy announced her run for the U.S. Senate late in 2023, and quickly corralled endorsements and money from county bosses on her name alone, outrage emerged. Twenty-nine (29) organizations, including RepresentUs of New Jersey, quickly signed on to create a new grassroots coalition – Fair Ballot Alliance NJ.
Our goal is to shine a spotlight on the unfair “county line” ballot and urge counties to adopt a fair “office bloc” ballot for the June 2024 primary. It’s already used in Salem and Sussex counties. We’ll petition and rally and encourage voters to speak up until the rest of New Jersey gets onboard. Change will happen voluntarily, through legislation or in the courts. All options are on the table.