A Revamped Ballot Design Jumpstarts Democracy in New Jersey

Tuesday’s primaries are a window into a possible new era in New Jersey politics—one where party bosses are a touch less powerful and primaries are more competitive.

Nikita Biryukov   |    May 31, 2024

A mail ballot for Bergen County’s Democratic primary shows the new design that will be used in Tuesday’s elections; it’s a familiar one in the rest of the nation, but in New Jersey it has broken a longstanding practice and it’s encouraging democracy advocates. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

The article is published through a collaboration between Bolts and the New Jersey Monitor.

As New Jersey Democrats vote in Tuesday’s primaries, they’ll encounter a revamped ballot, stripped of a unique design that critics say has given party leaders the ability to hand-select primary winners.

To people living anywhere else in the nation, the new ballot would look very familiar. Offices will appear on the ballot as distinct blocks, inviting voters to consider them separately from each other. But in New Jersey, this design is overhauling a longstanding practice.  

A federal judge in March barred county clerks from printing Democratic primary ballots that use the “county line,” a bespoke New Jersey ballot system that grouped candidates who are seeking separate offices—from president down to sheriff—into single rows or columns. Within each county, candidates gained a spot in the most advantageous grouping—where they were paired with well-known incumbents running for higher offices—through an endorsement by that county’s party. That prominent placement came with a powerful boost; candidates with support from party leaders seldom failed to win a nomination. 

The ruling was a preliminary stay that only applies this spring; courts are still weighing whether to permanently end the county line. 

But the upcoming primaries already offer a window into a possible new era of New Jersey politics—one where party bosses are a touch less powerful, even if they’ll retain other tools in their arsenal, and where primaries are more competitive. 

“In the places where we have contested races, I think we’ll get a more accurate depiction of where voters stand and not one that’s skewed particularly in favor of the party-endorsed candidates,” said Brett Pugach, one of the attorneys who argued the case against the county line.

This ballot, used in Monmouth County’s Democratic primary in July 2020, uses the county line design. The first column features the candidates endorsed by the local party: All nine candidates in that column won.

Research has found that the line confers a measurable advantage to candidates who receive it. Julia Sass Rubin, director of Rutgers University’s public policy program and an expert witness in the lawsuit, found that gaining an endorsement by a county party organization, and a spot on the county line, boosts a candidate by about 12 percentage points on average. 

Josh Pasek, another expert witness and a political science professor at the University of Michigan, reported similar findings. His study assessed that the line conferred an advantage of 10 to 11 points; the effect was far larger in primaries with no incumbents and candidates with little name recognition.

“The line undergirds an ability of political machines to control politics and policy of the state,” said Rubin. “That’s fundamentally the impact of the line.”

Good government groups and grassroots Democrats have long protested the use of the line, alleging that the boost it provides to party-backed candidates is unfair. In late 2020, a coalition of groups headed by the New Jersey branch of the League of Women Voters launched a campaign to educate voters on the line and call for the state to adopt a more traditional ballot design. That same year, a group of former candidates filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the line system violated their constitutional rights, though the case has moved very slowly and remains unresolved. 

The issue came to a head this fall when first lady Tammy Murphy decided to run for the state’s U.S. Senate seat after a federal grand jury indicted Senator Bob Menendez on bribery charges, among other allegations. Democratic county chairs in some of the state’s most populous counties lined up to endorse her over U.S. Representative and fellow candidate Andy Kim. 

What followed was a surprisingly effective revolt from Kim’s supporters and longtime line opponents, who forced new scrutiny on these practices. After Kim and two other congressional candidates filed a new lawsuit against the line, New Jersey’s attorney general agreed that the line was unconstitutional. A judge in March ruled that the case had a substantial chance of succeeding, enjoining the line from use in upcoming Democratic primaries while the case awaits a final resolution. 

Ironically, the ruling is unlikely to have a major effect on the Senate race since Murphy unexpectedly dropped out of the race shortly before the judge’s decision. 

But it thrust two Democratic congressional primaries that might otherwise be perfunctory into fierce competition. Five Democrats are vying for Kim’s 3rd District seat as he campaigns for Menendez’s spot in the upper chamber. Had lines still existed, Assemblymember Herb Conaway, a physician who won endorsements from Democrat organizations in all three of the district’s counties, would be overwhelmingly favored to win the nomination for Kim’s House seat.

But absent the line, Assemblymember Carol Murphy poses a credible threat to her former running mate’s House bid, as does civil rights attorney Joe Cohn, a relative outsider.

“I think the race, as far as when the race begins—and to some degree ends—has shifted,” said state Senator Troy Singleton, who represents their legislative district in the state Senate and is not picking sides in their primary.

Troy Singleton, a state senator who represents Burlington County, endorsed the end of the line design (photo from Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Singleton, an influential figure in the suburban and increasingly Democratic Burlington County who backed abolishing lines in February, said the lack of a line had broadened other candidates’ paths to victory.

He stressed that the ruling doesn’t just affect how voters behave when they’re filling in their ballots. The effects were felt immediately, he said. It allowed some candidates, like Cohn, to appear on debate stages that might have been barred to them if organizational support was among the qualifications to appear.

The dynamics are a little different in the 8th District, centered in Hudson County, where Democratic Representative Rob Menendez, the son of the now-indicted senator, faces a primary challenge from Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, one of the candidates who joined the lawsuit against the county line alongside Kim. The race is unfolding in the shadow of the father’s ongoing corruption trial.

Though Hudson County Democrats swiftly dropped support for the elder Menendez after the senator was indicted in September, they have not hesitated to throw their resources behind his son.

That support could be key even absent a line. Hudson County Democratic leaders like North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco—a former state senator who is one of the county’s numerous power brokers — wield vast ranks of canvassers that grassroots campaigns have, historically, failed to match.

“When you have organizations such as Nick Sacco’s on your side, you’re a big favorite,” said Hudson County Democratic Chairman Anthony Vainieri.

In the 3rd District, by contrast, the Burlington County Democratic Party, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of the district’s Democratic primary vote, has not thrown its organizational weight behind Conaway, even though the party had given him a spot on the county line. Singleton said the presence of two popular incumbents limited the party’s active involvement.  

Earlier research conducted by Sass-Rubin assessed the effects of party support without teasing out the line from the other resources that come with it; she found candidates that received both performed 38 points better on average. But the strength of institutional get-out-the-vote operations absent organizational lines remains untested.

“This is the underlying problem: We don’t know what a likely voter looks like in a competitive Democratic primary in New Jersey because we haven’t had one in more than 10 years,” said Dan Cassino, director of the Fairleigh Dickinson University Poll.

The advantages granted by the party support under the line system are stark enough that, in the past, even incumbents who haven’t gotten it have opted to not seek reelection rather than run off-the-line.

That was the case for former Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti, a Hudson County Democrat who did not seek reelection after Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis in 2021 awarded the county line to William Sampson through a longstanding tradition that lets Hudson County mayors pick members of their legislative delegation. Sampson was elected handily and he remains in the Assembly.

The ruling applies only to Democrats, so voters taking part in GOP primaries will still see the old design. This has made for a remarkable split screen in recent weeks, as New Jersey residents have received sample ballots with sections that look starkly different for each party’s primary.

Burlington County is the only county that will use office-block ballots, which group candidates by office sought, for both parties’ primaries due to a decision by the local clerk.

The system of grouping candidates together—it’s called bracketing—came into being in 1941, when Governor Charles Edison signed a bill allowing candidates to group themselves on the ballot under a common slogan. That law barred slogans from indicating a candidate’s party affiliation, but that prohibition was removed when the bracketing statute was rewritten in 1985.

Still, state statutes meant to denude party leaders of their influence on primary elections kept the system in check until the late 1980s. New Jersey’s current system of county lines spawned after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989 ruled a California ban on party primary endorsements impermissibly violated parties’ free speech and associational rights.

Over the succeeding 15 years, New Jersey courts struck down laws limiting candidates’ ability to bracket or seek party backing, first eliminating statute that required candidates for governor and U.S. Senate appear separate from others on the ballot before voiding an already unenforced law that barred parties from endorsing primary candidates in 2004.

Party leaders have broadly defended county lines, arguing candidate screening processes in some counties lead to better nominees more likely to win in November. The process for awarding lines varies from county to county. In some, chairs award them unilaterally, and in others, they are awarded by a vote of county committee members elected during primaries.

A polling site in Asbury Park (Photo from Daniella Heminghaus/New Jersey Monitor).

“It’s easier for the voter to support a team of candidates rather than looking all over the ballot for their choice,” said Vainieri.

But opponents of the system argue that it stifles competition and deprives voters of a choice. It’s not just that it influences the result, they say; it also dissuades people from even running in the first place. 

“You need to kiss the ring in order to have any chance of winning,” said Henal Patel, a policy director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, who penned amicus briefs in both lawsuits for the League of Women Voters and other groups. “That’s the first hurdle, and that, in and of itself, does kill participation—of course it does.”

The court’s ruling this year came too late to change that dynamic and get more candidates to run since the judge issued it days after the state’s filing deadline for the 2024 elections. 

“One of the impacts is that more people will get into primaries to run,” said Rubin. “But you’re not seeing that in this cycle because the decision came after the cutoff to file to run this cycle.”

If courts confirm the line’s demise, its opponents hope that it’ll encourage more residents to challenge incumbents and run for open seats. 

The filing deadline for New Jersey’s 2025 primaries for governor and legislature—elections that have long been dominated by local party bosses—are less than one year away.

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