Middlesex County Democrats Try to Overturn ‘Outdated’ Gender Rule

The county, like some others, still requires voters to choose one male and one female for county party committees. Critic calls it ‘classic’ sex and gender discrimination

Credit: Alexander F. Yuan
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Some Democrats in Middlesex County are trying to upend a decades-old law that requires a strict division between the sexes in certain elections. Voters there must choose one male and one female to represent them on county party committees, a rule that only some counties still follow.

But the Central Jersey Progressive Democrats group, which formed in the wake of the 2016 election, considers the one-male-and-one-female committee member rule to be outdated and notes that several counties have abandoned it. The organization is seeking to run four committee slates of two women each. Another candidate identifies as non-binary, or neither male nor female, and is looking to run without any gender label.

“It is unfortunate that there are outdated laws that prevent two women from representing one district together,” said Quiyana Butler, who has filed to run for a committee seat in Piscataway along with her neighbor Doreen Wilson. “I was inspired by the number of women who have recently been elected to Congress. I believe it is our time to shine.”

Butler added that no gender quota exists for any other political office in the state or country.

County committee representative is perhaps the most overlooked office on the primary election ballot. It is usually at the bottom of the list of candidates and sometimes no one files a petition to run for the seat. Many voters don’t know what a committeeman or committeewoman does.

The hidden power of county committees

But county political committees wield significant power in endorsing candidates for office. Everyone the committee backs gets to run on the same line, the party line. Since the party faithful tend to vote for everyone on that line, it is rare for an endorsed candidate to lose in a contested primary.

Middlesex is one of the counties where the Democratic organization is strong and entrenched. The CJPD, which is working to elect candidates who espouse progressive policies, fielded 60 candidates this year to run for county committee seats representing Piscataway, New Brunswick, Monroe and Jamesburg. The CJPD won seats in New Brunswick, Piscataway and Old Bridge in 2017.

The CJPD candidate slates include several that do not fit the one-male-and-one-female rule for each district that is enshrined in state law dating back to before the state’s current constitution, written in 1947. That requirement was an attempt to ensure that women, who held few elected positions at the time, could play a role in politics through the county committees.

But a 1997 ruling by a Superior Court Judge in Burlington County has led some counties to remove the male-and-female committee requirement from their balloting. In that case, Judge Harold Wells found it was both gender discrimination and an infringement on parties’ rights to self-govern to require — as state law stipulated and still does — that the vice-chair of each county committee “be of the opposite sex of the chairperson.” While not specifically ruling on the requirement that all committee members representing each area also comprise one male and one female, the judge held the entire statute to be invalid based on overall committee membership, as well.

While the statute “was once enacted to protect women, it can now be argued that it serves to bar them from at least 50 percent of the seats available for top leadership,” Wells wrote. “So while at one time the law may have been viewed as salutary to equalize opportunity between the genders in the political forum and to encourage women’s involvement in politics, such a law now has an effect opposite to that of its original design.”

‘Voters, not the state, should decide’

Laura Jill Leibowitz, who filed to run for a seat with a female neighbor in one Piscataway district, said women make up more than half of Democrats in the state and in Middlesex County, but this rule keeps them from being more fully represented.

“Voters, not the state, should decide who represents us,” she said. “Our members and voters across these counties want to be able to select candidates of their choosing, without being subject to this antiquated rule.”

Several counties, including Cumberland, Hunterdon, Mercer and Passaic, have removed language from their ballots requiring the casting of committee votes for one man and one woman.

Paula Sollami Covello, the Mercer County clerk, said a number of counties use that Burlington case, known as Hartman v. Covert, to award county committee seats to whichever two candidates get the most votes, regardless of gender.

“It is unconstitutional to require the seats be filled by gender,” she said. “There is still a statute that says it should be one male and one female. But there is caselaw … Most of us are relying on that. But all counties are not the same. Some do still use the statute.”

‘…in this day and age’

A Middlesex County election official said the county has referred the matter to the county counsel.

“Gender should not play a role in politics in this day and age,” said Maggie Doyle Ball, a hospice nurse and 40-year resident of Piscataway who filed to run with Leibowitz. “If two men, or two women, or two people who don’t wish to declare their gender want to run together and share their energy and commitment to their community, then they should be allowed to do so.”

Reliance on the statute is problematic also because gender identity today is more fluid and New Jersey has strong anti-discrimination laws and civil rights protections for LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and asexual or allied) individuals, according to CJPD members. They point to a change in state law that now allows an individual to choose “Undesignated/non-binary” under gender on a birth certificate. Identifying a male or female gender is optional on the state’s voter registration forms.

Em Phipps, CJPD’s committee candidate in a New Brunswick district, requested to be identified without the male/female designation on the ballot. Phipps identifies as non-binary.

“People take the male/female requirement for granted. There are a lot of things where you have to choose male or female, and you shouldn’t have to. This choice just doesn’t belong in an election,” said Phipps.

CJPD has also asked the clerks in Union and Warren counties if they would allow candidates to run without regard to gender identity. Thus far, only Union County has responded, stating it plans to adhere to the one-male-and-one-female requirement, according to the group’s attorney, Yael Bromberg.

“To continue this rule stifles the effectiveness and purpose of the democratic process,” said Kamuela Tillman, who is running in one Piscataway district along with another woman. “It undoes years of progress and struggle for access to democracy … Gender alone should not presuppose the effectiveness of the role we play in the democratic process.”

Bromberg, who called the state rule “classic sex and gender-discrimination,” said the group has also notified the state’s Attorney General of the organization’s concerns.