In late April, the members of Camden County’s Democratic Committee got together via Zoom to review and endorse candidates running in the primary. The meeting lasted a grand total of seven minutes.
Kate Delaney, a teacher from Collingswood who wanted to be mayor, was at the meeting waiting to make her best argument to land her party’s endorsement. She never got the chance.
“I was completely cut off,” Delaney said in a recent interview. “I was told the endorsements were already made by the party chairman. No room for argument. No room for debate. There wasn’t even a process.’”
Delaney and her running mates, relegated to the barren reaches of Column 5 on the ballot, were drubbed in May’s nonpartisan municipal election by 32-year incumbent James Maley, a lawyer and Democratic insider who’s made millions in public contracts.
Despite the loss, progressives across the state point to growing evidence that change is inevitable for New Jersey’s system of primary elections and the party bosses who made it that way.
An instrument of party control
New Jersey has the infamous distinction of being the only state in the country that allows political parties to organize and design primary ballots. Inevitably, experts say, the parties choose candidates who will maintain the system and bow to the big donors and public contractors who finance local elections.
The instrument of party control is the ballot itself, which lists endorsed candidates in a tidy group under Column 1 while scattering challengers down ballot in the confusing welter of what reformers call “ballot Siberia.”
A 2020 federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of New Jersey’s primaries is gaining momentum and could lead to embarrassing revelations about the way elections may have been manipulated in the past.
On Tuesday, leading reform advocates filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the plaintiffs’ arguments against dismissal.
“Fair voter access is about more than just drop boxes and early voting hours. New Jersey’s primary ballot layout confuses voters, leading to decreased participation and keeping voters from having their voices heard,” said Jesse Burns, Executive Director for one of the groups, the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.
Lawmakers join the fight
Also, for the first time, a nucleus of sitting lawmakers who benefited from the party system are now pushing for more open primaries and fairer ballot design.
These include influential Democrats like state Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) and Assemblywoman Shavonda E. Sumter (D-Passaic), Black leaders in the Legislature who argue that too many women and minority candidates have been excluded by a boss system that is overwhelmingly white and male.
Party leaders are also getting pelted by a pair of sitting lawmakers, longtime loyalists who suddenly find themselves spurned after being abruptly knocked off the party line, and with that the preferred ballot position. Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri-Huttle, for years criticized as a product of the Bergen County political machine, now talks about how a “rigged” system needs to be revamped.
“I’ve been a loyal Democrat for 20 years; now some people won’t even be seen with me,” Vainieri-Huttle said. “Good, bad or indifferent, I’ve been part of the party line in the past. But the truth is the line is a suppression tactic that protects the status quo.”
Vainieri-Huttle now faces fellow Assemblyman Gordon Johnson in one of the state’s fiercest primary contests. Both are seeking the Democratic nomination for the state Senate. Johnson won the party line. Vainieri-Huttle did not.
Another self-proclaimed “party guy,” Democratic Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti of Hudson County, says an obscure arrangement among party bigwigs cost him the endorsement in this year’s race.
“By some handshake agreement decades ago, the mayor of Bayonne or Jersey City can veto anyone from the line they don’t like,” said Chiaravalloti, a lawyer seeking his fourth term in the Legislature. “Apparently, I did or said something that turned one mayor against me.”
Chiaravallotti is now denouncing the boss system he rose through, and says the same insiders who stack the primary ballots are also rigging the election districts through gerrymandering and wheeling dark money to preferred candidates.
“The fact is that if you don’t have fair ballots and fair districts, you don’t really have a democracy,” he said. “Look at the record: The endorsed candidates win almost every time. So it’s not the people deciding who runs our state, it’s the bosses.”
Julia Sass Rubin, a professor at Rutgers University who researches New Jersey’s electoral system, has found that chosen candidates in Column 1 on the ballot enjoy a near insurmountable advantage in primary elections.
Her study of state elections shows that no state legislator seeking reelection has been defeated in a primary since 2009. And this: 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.
The power of the party chair
Sass Rubin says Democratic Party bylaws in 17 of 21 New Jersey counties don’t even mention the possibility of an open convention where primary candidates could present their credentials and make an argument for themselves.
“In most counties, the choice of who gets the line is completely up to one person, the party chair,” she said.
The result, Sass Rubin said, is a Legislature that bears little resemblance to the people it represents. Another result: 80% of political party chairs are white, and they are predominantly male, she said.
New Jersey is also ranked 27th among the states for the number of women in its Legislature, and numbers are decreasing.
“Despite having a sizeable minority population, New Jersey is dominated by a largely white and male political elite,” said Imani Oakley, a community organizer who works on ballot issues with citizen groups in north Jersey. “It’s time that we — the public — take back the power, and that starts with eliminating the line.”
Keep an eye on Camden next week
A major test for the party-line system comes next week, with several Democrats in Camden running hard in the mayor’s race against party choice Vic Carstarphen, an accountant who is still in his first term on the city council. Some of the challengers have drawn large crowds and enjoy enthusiastic followings on social media in what increasingly looks like a grassroots challenge to party insiders who have set policy in Camden for decades.
One of those challengers, Elton Custis, a substance abuse counsellor and former school board member, says the response to his campaign shows that change is inevitable. Custis says the South Jersey city of 74,000 is the product of boss rule that coddles well-heeled insiders while neglecting the poor and unemployed.
Why, Custis asks, does Camden remain among the most poverty-ridden cities in the state, with chronically low wages and high unemployment, despite the infusion of hundreds of millions in tax breaks and state aid?
“Because all that money was spent for rich people and their pet projects, by government officials who never would have got on the ballot if they didn’t take orders,” said Custis. “The sad truth is we have a government that doesn’t represent most of the people in this town. It certainly doesn’t represent the Black folks.”
Carstarphen did not return calls seeking comment.
Arguments that the skewed party line hits hardest at Black and brown New Jersey are deeply ironic in a blue state that has passed progressive policies on everything from the milionaires tax and pot legalization to driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
More voter suppression?
The drive to reform the boss ballot comes, too, as Republicans in red states across the country press new laws that restrict voting rights and usurp the traditional powers of state election officers to certify votes.
The prospect of rising voter suppression nationally, activists say, is buoying the fight for fairer elections in New Jersey, where “I love Stacey Abrams” bumper stickers are a common sight in some neighborhoods.
“Change is long haul but you can feel the energy out there,” said Sue Altman, a Camden-based activist who heads the Working Family Alliance, one of several plaintiffs in the ballot lawsuit now working through court. “There is a definite awareness that the ballot system is corrupt and can’t last.”
More than 50 grassroots reform groups, many of them hyper-local with names like “Glen Rock After the March,” ”Huddle by the Sea,” and “Our Revolution Monmouth” have made ending the party line their top issue. A number of candidates for state and local office have signed pledges to reform the system.
For many of these progressives, New Jersey’s mind-boggling ballot designs are a form of voter suppression more harmful than the new laws emerging in red-state America.
‘Our dirty little secret’
“In many ways I think it’s worse than what’s going on in places like Georgia,” said Clifford Kulwin, the rabbi emeritus of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston.
Kulwin said the lawsuit, if successful, could bring a fresh stream of vibrant candidates into the system. It’s notable, he added, that no one from the party establishments has spoken out strongly in defense of the current system.
“Too many people have a direct personal interest in maintaining the status quo … it’s our dirty little secret,” he said.
The lawsuit, which names several counties as defendants, is likely to go on for months as Judge Freda Wolfson in Newark weighs defense arguments to dismiss the case. Lawyers for the counties have denied that the party line harms candidates through violating their constitutional rights.
“We’re confident the court will agree that candidates have been injured by the ballot,” said Flavio Komuves, an attorney for the plaintiffs, which include several prominent reform groups. “The evidence is overwhelming.”
Turner said party leaders shouldn’t have to be sued to embrace democratic change. In Mercer County, she pointed out, party rules mandate an open convention and secret ballot where incumbents are not even identified as such.
In March, Turner said, the party rank-and-file voted to replace a nine-term incumbent on the Mercer County Commission. Terrance Stokes, a school administrator in Trenton, is a University of Pennsylvania graduate who never held public office before.
“He was an outstanding candidate and the system in Mercer allowed him to rise,” Turner said. “That’s the kind of simple, basic democracy we need all over this state.”