Predictions for end to NJ’s county line: More accountability, maybe more money in politics

Abolishing New Jersey’s “county line” ballot system could radically reshape the state’s politics, from increasing the number of competitive primaries to holding legislators accountable for unpopular votes in Trenton.

The county line has been a potent tool for the state’s political machines by helping them sway races and pick the likely winners months before voters go to the ballots. The ballot system groups candidates endorsed by county political party organizations into a single row or column on primary ballots, signaling to voters a stamp of approval from their party.

But on Friday, a federal judge ordered a temporary injunction against the Democratic Party’s use of the county line in June’s primary. The lawsuit was brought by U.S. Senate candidate and current Rep. Andy Kim, whose attorneys say the judge’s ruling suggests a separate lawsuit that aims to permanently end the system would likely prevail as well. And even if the judge doesn’t eliminate the county line, the Legislature might. Leaders from both major parties have said they’re open to change, so long as it isn’t imposed by the courts.

If the county line system is eliminated permanently, longtime political observers said New Jersey’s primary races will be more competitive and will force legislators to be more responsive to their constituents rather than the party chairs who run the political organizations. Some political scientists and elected officials predict that without the party bosses serving as gatekeepers, New Jersey could see more money in primaries, or political extremists could vie for attention during polarizing campaigns.

Despite a record number of open seats in the state Legislature in 2023, only 13% of state Senate and Assembly seats had contested primaries. The national average in 2022 was 24%, according to Ballotpedia, a nonprofit and nonpartisan election information hub.

Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, said that’s because other potential primary candidates are dissuaded from running when political organizations award the county line.

Eliminating the line “could be the great equalizer,” he said, because county party chairs will hold less power. Candidates will instead need to appeal to many different constituencies and groups to build support, according to Rasmussen and other observers.

“I think we’re going to see more interesting things come before the Legislature,” said Hetty Rosenstein, the former director of the state’s Communication Workers of America.” I think having to have your own base of support and having to make sure that you are responsive to your district will cause more legislators to function independently and make an attempt to make a name for themselves.”

Researchers say many voters tend to tick off every name on the line, giving the endorsed candidates a huge advantage.

If they can’t rely on that advantage conferred by the party chairs, Rasmussen and others say, state legislators will become more wary of rushing through legislation that’s popular with the political establishment, but controversial among constituents — like a proposed bill to gut the state’s public records act, or last year’s bill that weakened campaign finance and pay-to-play laws despite a stated purpose of increasing election transparency.

Although New Jersey’s most powerful Democratic legislative leaders supported those measures, good governments decried them and said they would open the state up to more corruption and less public scrutiny.

“The sense that we can do what we want, it’s not going to matter, we have these tools that shield us from public accountability — I hope that goes away, Rasmussen said.

But the county party chairs will still matter, Rasmussen said, because they can still raise money and have organizations that can mobilize voters.

Republican state Sen. Jon Bramnick, who is running for governor in 2025, also sees a huge shift coming, but he is not certain it will be positive.

He said the county line works well if the process is democratic. In some counties, party chairs award their organizations’ endorsements themselves. But in others, the organizations hold conventions and award their endorsements via secret votes among delegates.

“I like that because there’s a filtering process that sometimes rejects the most extreme person and sometimes rejects the wealthiest person because these are true representatives of each district in the county,” Bramnick said.

But the county line system never fully removed money from the political equation. Jon Corzine and Phil Murphy both made large donations to county Democratic organizations before securing endorsements for their successful runs for governor.

If the county line is abolished before next year’s gubernatorial election, it could significantly change the dynamics of the race, especially among the large Democratic field expected to run. None of the anticipated candidates has a statewide base; instead, each one would have to build that support from the ground up rather than rely on deals with county bosses.

“I think we’re going to see a big shakeup because up until this point, the candidates who have gotten into the race are all very strong within their own regions,” Rasmussen said. “It’s a recalculation. It’s a recalibration. It’s a different kind of campaign that’s not aimed at insiders so much, but it’s aimed at those who vote in primaries.”

Some members of the county party organizations have been advocating for a more democratic process. Rebecca Scheer, a member of the Essex County Democratic Committee, wants to see the county line abolished, but wants the party to remain strong.

“Some people are looking at it that this is just going to be all sunshine and rainbows,” Scheer said. “But there’s just a culture of machine politics in New Jersey and that’s not going away just because the line went away.”

Scheer and other progressive members of the committee have been calling for a convention in Essex, one of several large Democratic committees where the party chair endorses candidates on behalf of the organization himself. She believes that reform could happen now that the county line’s power is in jeopardy.

“I think having a strong Democratic Party is good, big-D Democratic. I see a lot of problems with the Democratic Party and things I’d like to change, but it’s still my party,” Scheer said. “And I think it’s great that we can have this apparatus to turn out the vote. I just think we need to be more small-d democratic about it.”

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