Progressive candidates who won preliminary relief allowing them to run for County Committee in last year’s Middlesex County Democratic primary without regard to gender restrictions last week filed additional papers with the Court to end the discriminatory practice in Middlesex County for good. Their proposed amended complaint asks the Court for permanent relief so that women and non-binary candidates can run for County Committee party seats free of state-sanctioned gender and sex discrimination.
“We made history last year, running slates of two women and the first non-binary candidate in Middlesex County, and winning some of those races. Now, we want to protect our rights, and those of all candidates, to run in future elections,” said Laura Jill Leibowitz, who represents the Possumtown area of Piscataway. As a Central Jersey Progressive Democrat (CJPD) candidate, Leibowitz won her election by a single vote, after provisional ballots put her ahead of both Middlesex County Democratic Organization (MCDO) candidates. She, and the female MCDO candidate Dorothy Powers, now both represent their district, thanks to the preliminary relief won in court.
“If this discriminatory rule had been allowed to stand last year, my district would be represented by someone who did not come in second on the ballot. We would have been represented by someone wholly on the basis of their sex,” she said.
Kamuela Tillman, another successful female candidate who ran and won along with her neighbor Staci Berger, agreed. “The one-man-one-woman rule is from 1947, and so much has changed for women since that time. We are more than half of the population, but this rule says we can never hold more than half of the party seats. What was a floor is now a ceiling, and we intend to break through for women, girls and LGTBQIA individuals,” she said. Tillman and Berger won a landslide victory in their Heights neighborhood district, also in Piscataway.
CJPD attorney Yael Bromberg, a voting rights expert said, “This case seeks to end Middlesex County’s reliance on an outdated state law that is not followed uniformly throughout the state. This was initially addressed by a 1997 case decided by Burlington County Assignment Judge Wells, which invalidated a related state requirement that the chair and vice chairs of parties had to be of opposite genders.”
Passaic, Mercer, Hunterdon, Cape May and Cumberland county clerks do not enforce the rule, interpreting the Burlington County decision to apply beyond the chair and vice chair positions, to outlaw sex discrimination in all County Committee races Candidates in those counties run for “committee member” and the candidates who receive the first and second highest votes cast for them are declared the winners. In at least one town in Essex County, the Democratic Party allows women to hold seats designated as “committee man.” Bromberg noted that no challenges have been made in these counties by any party or to the 1997 decision.
“Judge Jacobson relied in part on the Burlington County case, as well as representations offered by the NJ Attorney General’s office that the case is guiding and binding on Committee races. This helped inform the grant of emergent injunctive relief last year, and allowed CJPD candidates to run free of prima facie discrimination,” explained Bromberg. “The one-man-one-woman rule imposes a cap on what women can gain; forces women to compete against each other on the basis of sex; disregards the will of the voters when the two highest vote-getters happen to be women; and assigns unequal weight to some votes over others on the basis of sex.”
The plaintiffs are hopeful that their case will inspire other candidates in counties across New Jersey to seek similar changes and end the discriminatory ballot rules. For now, though, they are finishing what they started by seeking leave of the Court to file an amended complaint for permanent relief.\
“Women and non-binary individuals can hold every other office in America, but the state imposes a sex quota on committee seats only,” said Doreen Wilson-Bailey, a 2019 CJPD candidate who is pursuing permanent relief through the lawsuit. “We look forward to ending this rule in Middlesex County so that women and LGTBQIA individuals here can fully participate in our democracy on behalf of the will of the people.”