How can we fix New Jersey’s fixed primary elections? | Opinion
A series of pivotal elections are taking place in New Jersey this month, ones you probably don’t know about. It’s because you can’t vote. Almost no one does.
Take Mercer County, for example. On March 16, an election here will decide two of the seven county commissioners and confirm two congressional representatives. Other years it decides the county executive and impacts the gubernatorial and senate races.
So why don’t people vote? Because it’s not really an election. This is the Mercer County Democratic Convention, where a few hundred Democratic Party insiders, elected officials, and powerful players — not all of the 121,783 Mercer Democrats — choose our representatives for us.
In 19 of New Jersey’s 21 counties, political parties use manipulative ballots to predetermine primary election winners. This helps explain why our government does not prioritize working class people. Instead, political machines protect special interests, dominating our state by manipulating or circumventing democracy.
Here’s how it works: county parties, or party chairmen, endorse candidates at conventions. These candidates are placed on the primary election ballots on what is called the county line. This favorable position on the line puts the names of local county-backed candidates directly under the likes of Joe Biden or Phil Murphy. Candidates without official party support are placed in columns to the right, appearing less visible and less legitimate. Sometimes they are placed in multiple columns, with empty spaces at the top of their columns. Candidates seeking the same position may also be forced into the same column, further confusing voters who may vote for both, invalidating their vote.
Why is this important? Because fair primary elections are essential. This is where voters – not power brokers – should choose the candidates who will run in November’s general election. But in our state, convention votes (or presidential picks) decide endorsements, endorsements decide who gets the line, and the line decides who wins the primary election. In 2020, congressional candidates gained a 35 percentage point advantage when they got the line. This virtually guarantees primary election victories. Incumbents on the line are undefeated for over 12 years for state offices and over 50 years at the federal level.
New Jerseyans deserve elections, not lifetime appointments!
The line also cuts out women and communities of color. County chairmen, who choose the winners of New Jersey’s primary elections, are overwhelmingly white and male. Their favoritism towards candidates who look like them and think like them leads to a systemic bias.
The power of the line was on display at the Mercer County Democratic Convention last year. Our Revolution Trenton Mercer helped our endorsed candidate, Terrance Stokes, defeat 27-year-old incumbent Anne Cannon for the party’s endorsement. Cannon only lost 4% of the votes.
In a fair system, this might indicate that she had a chance of winning the primary anyway. In New Jersey? Fuhgeddaboudit. Cannon and two other unapproved contestants dropped out rather than get out of line.
It’s understandable. Just ask Nick Chiaravalloti, a Bayonne MP for six years who also refused to seek re-election in 2021 after realizing he would have to step out of line. Or Valerie Huttle (a 16-year-old MP) and Betty Lou De Croce (a 10-year-old incumbent), who each challenged the county’s party leadership, bowed against the windmill, skidded and lost. Recently, Hudson County politicians negotiated a deal over who would get the line in next year’s legislative races, knowing they would win before a single vote was cast.
The line is the most powerful asset a candidate can have in a New Jersey primary election, being more powerful than the incumbent or literally having more supporters than rivals. Elected officials know that their re-election depends on listening to party presidents and respecting the line. They are beholden to the political machines, at the expense of everyone else.
We can change the game, however, with the Better Ballots NJ campaign and an office block ballot. This type of balloting mimics those seen in other states, where ballots do not prejudge election results.
Our Revolution New Jersey and our Trenton-Mercer County chapter are fighting for better ballots in New Jersey. We have a plan – join us and help win better ballots! We can rebuild what we lost, with modern ballots that empower voters to decide elections.
After all, aggressive redevelopment is all the rage in New Jersey these days.