How can we fix New Jersey’s fixed primary elections? | Opinion

(Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

A series of pivotal elections are happening across New Jersey this month, elections that you likely don’t know about. That’s because you don’t get to vote. Almost no one does.

Take Mercer County, for example. On March 16, an election here will decide two of seven county commissioners and confirm two congressional representatives. Other years, it decides the county executive and impacts gubernatorial and senate races.

So why don’t people get to vote? Because it’s not really an election. It’s the Mercer County Democratic convention, where a few hundred Democratic Party insiders, elected officials, and power players — not all 121,783 Mercer Democrats — pick our representatives for us.

In 19 of New Jersey’s 21 counties, political parties use manipulative ballots to preordain primary election winners. This helps explain why our government doesn’t prioritize working-class people. Instead, political machines protect special interests, dominating our state by manipulating or overriding democracy.

Here’s how it works: County parties, or party chairs, endorse candidates at conventions. These candidates are placed on primary election ballots on what’s known as the county line. This favorable position on the line puts county-backed local candidates’ names directly under people like Joe Biden or Phil Murphy. Candidates without official party backing are placed in columns off to the right, appearing less noticeable and less legitimate. Sometimes they’re placed multiple columns away, with empty spaces atop their columns. Candidates seeking the same office can also be forced into the same column, further confusing voters who may vote for both, invalidating their vote.

A 2018 ballot out of Camden County shows how ‘the line’ allows county-backed candidates to get better ballot placement.

Why does this matter? Because fair primary elections are critical. That’s where voters — not power brokers — should pick which candidates will advance to the general election in November. But in our state, convention votes (or chair selections) decide endorsements, endorsements decide who gets the line, and the line decides who wins primary elections. In 2020, congressional candidates gained a 35 percentage point advantage when granted the line. This virtually guarantees primary election wins. Incumbents on the line are undefeated for more than 12 years for state offices, and more than 50 years federally.

New Jersey residents deserve elections, not lifelong appointments!

The line also suppresses women and communities of color. County chairs, who pick primary election winners across New Jersey, are overwhelmingly white and male. Their favoritism toward candidates who look and think like them results in systemic bias.

The power of the line was on display at last year’s Mercer County Democratic convention. Our Revolution Trenton Mercer helped our endorsed candidate, Terrance Stokes, defeat 27-year incumbent Anne Cannon for the party’s endorsement. Cannon lost by only 4% of votes.

In a fair system, this might indicate she had a chance to win the primary anyway. In New Jersey? Fuhgeddaboudit. Cannon and two other not-endorsed candidates dropped out rather than run off the line.

This is understandable. Just ask Nick Chiaravalloti, a Bayonne assemblyman for six years who also declined to seek re-election in 2021 after realizing he’d have to run off the line. Or Valerie Huttle (a 16-year assemblywoman) and Betty Lou De Croce (a 10-year incumbent), who each defied county party leadership, tilted at the windmill, ran off the line, and lost. Recently, Hudson County politicos brokered a deal for who gets the line in next year’s legislative races, knowing they’ll win before a single vote is cast.

A 2017 ballot out of Salem County, which does not include ‘the line’ in its ballot design.

The line is the single most powerful asset candidates can have in New Jersey primary elections, more powerful than incumbency or literally having more supporters than rivals. Elected officials know their re-election depends on heeding party chairs and toeing the line. They are beholden to political machines, at everyone else’s expense.

We can change the game, however, with the Better Ballots NJ Campaign and an office-bloc ballot. This kind of ballot emulates those seen in other states, where ballots don’t pre-decide election outcomes.

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’ve lost, with modern ballots that let voters decide elections.

After all, aggressive redevelopment is all the rage nowadays in New Jersey.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Charlene Phelps
Charlene Phelps

Charlene Phelps works in the public health sector and is a Trenton community activist.

Joe Marchica
Joe Marchica

Joe Marchica is founder and co-chair of Our Revolution Trenton Mercer, a Better Ballots NJ Campaign ambassador, and a plaintiff on the lawsuit seeking to abolish the county line.