NJ’s party-line insiders protect their power using confusing ballot design

Jeff Pillets | December 10, 2020 | Politics
Candidates who don’t cozy up to local kingmakers can find themselves banished to ‘ballot Siberia,’ while favorites are awarded prominent positions

Editor’s note: This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

More than a month after the election, controversy about fair voting practices still dominates the political conversation, as President Donald Trump and his allies continue their baseless quest to find what he claims are rigged ballots.

Ironically, every year in New Jersey, voters in the state’s primary elections find themselves confronted with confusing, poorly designed ballots that while not technically rigged are often slanted to the benefit of political insiders and local party bosses.

It’s called the “party line.”

“In most of our counties, the primary ballot is a stacked deck,” said Brandon McKoy, the chief executive at New Jersey Policy Perspective, a nonpartisan think tank. “The line protects the status quo in power, not the average taxpayer.”

McKoy’s organization is one of about a dozen progressive groups that have banded together  to attempt to reform  New Jersey’s party-driven electoral system, which invests power in a handful of local kingmakers who have huge influence over fundraising, award of public contracts and official endorsement of primary candidates.

The group, under the leadership of the nonprofit Good Government Coalition of New Jersey, has marshalled an array of evidence showing how the party line damages democracy.

They point out that New Jersey is the only state in the nation that allows political parties to organize and design primary ballots. The result is that favored candidates win prominent positions that stand out to the voters, while other candidates are condemned to “ballot Siberia” — a remote column along with other unfavored candidates.

Studies cited by the group show that the system helps give incumbents a powerful lock on office: No state legislator seeking reelection has been defeated in a primary since 2009. No congressional incumbent from New Jersey has lost a primary in the past half-century, even as primary challengers unseated dozens of incumbents in other states during the same time.

Three decades of party-line power

A 75-page study published earlier this year in the Rutgers University Law Review found that the party-line system has dominated New Jersey politics for at least three decades, driven by powerful local bosses who foster bad ballot design and voter confusion to promote narrow interests of the party.

The study’s author, Brett Pugach, a leading election lawyer who in 2016 served as New Jersey general counsel to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, wrote that part of the problem stems from state laws that allow county committees to amass large sums of money.

Getting elected, Pugach wrote, becomes a matter of staying close to the county chairman and his pot of money.

“The alternative is that they (candidates) risk not receiving the endorsement of the county committee and … the financial benefits that will surely accompany it,” he found. “Anything short of unwavering support could amount to political suicide.”

Kate Delaney, a teacher from Collingswood who in 2019 led an insurgent group of candidates to win election to the Camden County Democratic Committee, says the party line remains a stubborn barrier to good government.

New Jersey’s pay-to-play culture, she said, revolves around the power of unelected political leaders to choose candidates who will vote to favor powerful donors and direct lucrative public contracts to other insiders.

Political machines are pricey

“It’s not about Republican or Democrat at all, it’s about money,” Delaney said. “It’s about who controls the contracts. And the taxpayers end up going into debt for goods and services that could probably be purchased cheaper — political machines are expensive.’’

Later this week, Delaney plans to officially announce her candidacy for mayor of Collingswood, a race in which she will have to challenge longtime incumbent Mayor James Maley in the party primary.

“It will be an uphill battle, but we did it once before,” she said.

In coming months, ahead of next year’s gubernatorial election, the reformers plan to press for a common-sense ballot design that lists candidates according to the office they are running for — not by the organization that endorsed them. They’ll be asking lawmakers and others to sign a fair ballot resolution  to help protect New Jersey primaries against insider interest.

Voter confusion caused by poorly designed ballots, they say, routinely results in disenfranchisement.

In this year’s primary election, voter confusion caused by these ballots resulted in 32.4% of all Mercer County Democratic voters in the 4th Congressional District having their votes disqualified because they selected two congressional candidates, and 19% of all Atlantic County Democratic voters not voting for any U.S. Senate candidate.