How relevant is your vote today? | Opinion

Published: Jun. 07, 2022

By Yael Niv

A Mercer County candidate says not only does she not have an opponent, but none of the races on her ballot are contested. That means a small number of people are actually picking our candidates for the November ballot.

I just voted for myself. Reluctantly.

I am a candidate for the county committee in one of the many uncontested primary races across the state. But not only do I not have an opponent – none of the races on my ballot are contested. I had exactly one option for every office.

Unfortunately, such sham primary elections are the norm in New Jersey. In fact, they are encouraged by our ballot design and party power structures. From governor to township committee, candidates routinely drop out if they do not receive the party’s endorsement, and with it, the preferential “county line” position on the primary election ballot. Because most voters vote down the county line, running “off the line” is a sure loss, so most candidates don’t even bother.

For example, in my home county of Mercer, there were seven Democratic candidates for two open county commissioner seats. County commissioners control huge budgets and hold important decision-making power that affects us all.

Part of the role of the county committee – the elected party representatives in each of the major parties – is to endorse candidates that they believe would be most competitive in the general election. Such endorsement carries a lot of weight. In other states, it carries material support such as campaign funds and canvassing volunteers.

In New Jersey, the endorsement is much more than that. The endorsement comes with preferential ballot placement that gives a candidate as many as 35 points advantage. Most often, those who are not endorsed will not appear on the county line on the ballot and will drop out of the race altogether. And the system is set up to encourage that.

Our partisan endorsement processes are deliberately aimed at reducing competition, restricting ballot access to only those anointed by the party, and leaving voters with no choice on their primary ballots.

How do I know? It is all in the timing. At my first endorsement convention as a county committee member, I was truly puzzled by the fact that the convention occurred before the deadline for filing to run for office. Should we not first wait to see who is running, before deciding who to endorse?

How naïve I was. This timing is no coincidence. The goal is to have those who are not endorsed drop out of the race then and there. And this is extremely effective. This year, once we endorsed two candidates for the county committee, the other five dropped out.

After collecting the required number of signatures, making numerous phone calls to solicit votes from county committee members, and participating in candidate forums in multiple towns and party clubs, not one of them filed their petitions.

Last year, a seven-term incumbent who lost the endorsement by a handful of votes also dropped out. If you are not on the county line, there is no point in running, even if you are an incumbent.

We have a great democratic process in Mercer County. We are one of the only counties that have a full county committee vote, by secret ballot, for endorsements. But this still means that 400 people decide the election for the whole county.

Since most of New Jersey’s counties, legislative, and congressional districts are dominated by one of the major parties, our general elections are largely non-competitive. So, winning the primary is tantamount to winning the general election.

This means that a small number of party insiders are deciding who gets elected to the state legislature, as county commissioners, or even to serve in Congress or as governor.

It is because of the county line that we have non-competitive elections with only one option for each office. Even with early voting in place, without competition, we all know the election is a sham, and there is no point in voting. My husband, so proud to vote for me when I first ran, did not bother this time around.

The way I see it, the advantage of the county line is not 35 percentage points. In most races, it is 100 percentage points. It definitely was for our county commissioner race.

No wonder a judge recently allowed a lawsuit claiming the County Line is unconstitutional to move forward, citing as his reason the protection of democracy. It is about time. We all deserve better ballots and true democracy.

Yael Niv is president of the nonpartisan grassroots Good Government Coalition of New Jersey, whose Better Ballots NJ resolution to establish a fair ballot has already been signed by over 75 groups across the state.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-06-08 05:44:12 -0700