Opinion: Democracy in New Jersey is tainted
By Sue Altman, Ryan Haygood and Jesse Burns
(This article was originally published at NJ.com)
In New Jersey, elections are rigged.
We are the only state that uses the “line” to design our ballots — meaning in almost every county in the state, county clerks and county branches of both major party chairs provide a definitive advantage to their endorsed candidates by grouping them together in a prime position on the ballot in a manner that attracts maximum attention from voters.
The candidates who are not endorsed are placed on other lines, sometimes far away from the main line, minimizing visibility.
The result is devastating for non-endorsed candidates.
Candidates awarded the favored county line gain, on average, a 35-point advantage. The result is an election system that is fixed, which diminishes the power of voters and ensures that politically connected candidates are elected again and again.
Indeed, as Salem County’s Deputy County Clerk explained, “A poor guy might be a good candidate, but he doesn’t have a chance unless he’s on the line. That’s kind of the way it is.”
In fact, no incumbent state legislator has lost a primary in New Jersey since 2009.
This undemocratic approach makes our state’s elected officials, from township councilmembers to state senators to members of Congress, accountable to the preferences of party chairs rather than to voters.
It is also part of the reason why Black and brown people here confront some of the worst racial disparities in America, why our elected officials never lose elections, why there is so little accountability to voters and why New Jerseyans suffer from a “corruption tax” composed of lucrative contracts that go to politically connected engineering, insurance and law firms.
It is also a reason why, while New Jersey is one of the most racially diverse states in America where people of color comprise 45% of the population, our elected representatives don’t reflect that diversity and also under-represent women. Party chairs who influence ballot design are overwhelmingly white and male. More than three-quarters of Democratic county party chairs are men, and more than 80% are white. The numbers are even worse on the Republican side.
The leaders who are elected through this process are then in charge of spending billions of dollars in taxpayer money. Our state budget alone is more than $38 billion annually. Our county governments spend nearly $7 billion annually. And local governments, as well as obscure state agencies like joint insurance funds, local and state authorities spend billions more.
Imagine if these billions of dollars were invested in ways that increased the standard of living for working families, invested in communities of color that have been left behind due to structural racism and enhanced coveted features of New Jersey life, like schools, transportation, and our natural environment — instead of being steered to politically connected professional services firms.
Key to making this change happen is ending the county line and the unconstitutional power that comes with it. A case filed before a federal district judge in Trenton, in which New Jersey Working Families is a plaintiff, seeks to do just that.
We know we can do this.
Our organizations, which have been at the forefront of the fight to build an inclusive democracy in New Jersey, have — along with advocates around the state — already succeeded in restoring the right to vote to 83,000 people on probation and parole; creating online voting through which more than 400,000 registered to vote; and ending prison-based gerrymandering for legislative redistricting.
Our ultimate goal is to build a democracy in New Jersey that will serve as a national model for electoral reform— one that empowers the people, not the politically connected.
Now, it’s time for New Jersey to end the line and return the power of democracy to the people, where it belongs.
Sue Altman serves as state director for New Jersey Working Families.
Ryan Haygood is the president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
Jesse Burns serves as executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey