Now, more than ever, between contentious primary elections and a deadly pandemic, it is clear: we’ve reached the end of The Line.
According to a Rutgers University analysis, New Jersey is the only state in the country with primary ballots organized in columns, by “association” with a “party Line” rather than by position. Every other state organizes their primary ballot so that you vote for who to run for Senate by choosing between those running for Senate, you choose council members for your town by selecting among those running for council, and you choose a sheriff by comparing all the candidates running for sheriff. These are wholly different races, each to be considered separately as you vote for whoever you think would do the best job.
Not in New Jersey. Here, candidates are organized in columns across position, with voters encouraged to vote “down the Line,” choosing in one fell swoop all the candidates who were anointed by the party. I say anointed because that is the process in many counties: the candidates who get placed in The Line are the ones favored by party bosses. Not because they are the best at what they do, but because they are the best at protecting the private interests of party bosses. This makes us uniquely corrupt.
And alas, those anointed almost always win. An analysis done by the Communication Workers of America reveals that in the past ten years, not a single state-level (i.e., Assembly or state Senate) primary candidate who ran “on the Line” lost. Not a single one.
Is that because the party is making such great choices? Or because the political system in New Jersey hides information from voters so they would default to the Line rather than making informed choices?
An illustrative example is Congressman Jeff van Drew who won a seat in CD2 in 2018 by running on the Line in the Democratic primary. Although many thought Van Drew’s voting record and agenda were more Republican than Democratic, he was shoved down voters’ throats by the South Jersey political machine. Less than a year later, he changed parties and vowed undying support to Donald Trump. So much for great choices by the Democratic party machine.
Voters are sick and tired of being manipulated, of special interests of party bosses being weighed more heavily than the public interest – and are calling to #AbolishTheLine. But party bosses are only escalating their anti-democratic shenanigans.
Indeed 2020, only 3.5 months old, is so far a watershed year: first, worried that popular progressive presidential candidates would lure voters away from the Line and the establishment candidates down-ballot (since voters supporting a progressive presidential candidate might vote for down-ballot progressives in that column as well), counties throughout the state decided to not put presidential candidates on the Line at all. Suddenly, when the Line was going to hurt them, they were more than willing to get rid of it. With Bernie Sanders out of the race, I wonder if they will have a sudden change of heart regarding placement of presidential candidates? It is clear that the Party is shamelessly using the Line to generate votes for their candidates.
More recently, and even more corrupt, Ocean County chair Wyatt Earp cancelled the county committee endorsement vote for the CD2 candidate to run against van Drew because Amy Kennedy, an anti-machine candidate, was likely to win the vote of the county committee. No other endorsement vote was canceled: the committee selected their favorite for the Line for CD4, and all other roles. Only CD2 was suddenly an outlier. If the Line hurts the machine, then suddenly, by local surgery, there is no Line. The members of the county committee were notified of this on a phone call in which they were all muted, leaving them no recourse.
Indeed, taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis, many counties have completely cancelled elections for county committee this year. County committees determine which candidates get to be on the Line. They also determine whether there is a Line at all. Under the cover of a national emergency, the party machine is clutching at straws to stay in power amidst a growing movement to #TakeBackNJ – a push to give power back to voters, and dismantle the corrupt party machine.
County Chairs are so desperate to dismantle democratic elections that a judge ruled that they violated their own by-laws, and cannot unilaterally cancel county committee elections. And as of writing, Middlesex County Chair Kevin McCabe has convened an emergency vote in two weeks, to cancel next years’ county committee elections. Citing COVID-19 as pretext to post-haste postpone elections slated for June 2021 by no less than two years fools no one. Contrary to shameful personal attacks by Michael Sueiman, Atlantic County Chair, Democratic party members value democratic elections and upholding of the rule of law. They don’t take lightly to power grabs by authoritarian Chairs.
For years, the official statement was that the Line does not have undue influence, and that it is simply a way for candidates to express their affiliation with other candidates. But the mask is falling off: when candidates want to express affiliation with presidential candidates, they are denied the opportunity. When county committee members want to express their endorsement of a different candidate than the county chair prefers, that is not allowed. It is clear as day: the Line is the ticket to being elected, and the machine wants to reserve the right to give it to some but not to others.
This is not democracy. The Line is the largest source of corruption in New Jersey, and it has to go. It is the end of the Line, and time for democracy in New Jersey.
Yael Niv is president of the Good Government Coalition of New Jersey (GGCNJ)