How did N.J. end up with Sen. Bob Menendez in the first place? Our ballot design is the culprit

January 12, 2024 6:47 am

Because of New Jersey’s unique primary ballot design, Sen. Bob Menendez has never faced a truly competitive election where he was on an equal footing with other candidates, writes Laura Zurfluh. (Edwin J. Torres/NJ Governor’s Office)

New Jersey voters may be asking themselves how they ended up with a senator like Bob Menendez, who twice has been indicted federally for corruption.

The answer, in large part, is New Jersey’s unique primary ballot.

Sen. Menendez has never faced a truly competitive election where he was on an equal footing with other candidates. In a heavily Democratic state, where no Republican has been elected to the U.S. Senate since 1972, the competition takes place in the Democratic primary election. But our primary ballots are designed to trick voters.

In January 2006, then-Rep. Menendez was appointed by Gov. Corzine to the Senate seat that Corzine vacated when he became governor. No election so far.

In the Democratic primary election that spring, and again in the 2012 and 2018 primaries, 19 Democratic county party chairs decided that Menendez should be placed on the “county line,” a uniquely New Jersey ballot design that effectively enables the party chairs to select who will win the primary. Recent research shows that being on the county line provides a nearly insurmountable advantage to candidates. Given this head start, many competitors not on the line decide to drop out of the race.

For Menendez, being appointed and then being given the county line in his three senatorial primaries meant he never really had to convince voters to support him. All he needed was the support of 19 Democratic Party county chairs.

After the most recent charges of corruption, most Democratic chairs have called for Sen. Menendez’s resignation, but in 2018 he was given the county line despite his first indictment. In a startling show of distaste for Menendez, voters gave his unknown opponent almost 40% of the vote despite her likely spending less than $5,000 on the race. If a truly democratic process had been in place, a robust primary could have chosen a qualified candidate eager to work for the residents of New Jersey rather than line his pockets (literally!) with money.

It is time to let the voters of New Jersey have a real voice in who represents us. It is time for New Jersey primary ballots to look like those used by 49 other states and not a means of manipulating voters into “choosing” the preordained candidate the way a spectator “chooses” the card a magician wants them to. It’s time for real democracy in New Jersey.

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Laura Zurfluh
Laura Zurfluh

Laura Zurfluh is a board member of Good Government Coalition NJ, a nonpartisan, grassroots group whose mission is to strengthen democracy by working with residents across our state to bring greater transparency, accountability, and participation to our state and local governments. She is also the founder and leader of Indivisible Cranbury.